Steven Spielberg’s True Story and Radical Traditionalism

The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical coming-of-age film, co-written with Tony Kushner, is engaging, frequently charming, and, in a few instances, so suddenly lyrical that it’s downright surprising. The pain of the past never overpowers Spielberg’s fondness for what he’s showing us. But when it focuses too long on how the director did it, lovely as parts of it are, I find it a lot less compelling than what the man has actually done.

When a director has spent the last decade addressing America’s recent history as vividly as Spielberg has with Bridge of Spies, The Post, and especially West Side Story, one of his masterpieces; when he’s made those stories feel like parts of the unfinished history we are all still living; and when he’s done all this using the techniques and conventions that defined the classic Hollywood cinema of the ‘40s and ‘50s, making them feel not like resurrected relics but living art, then the reduced scope of this portrait of the artist as a young boychik, warm as it is, can’t help but feel like something of a retreat. The once Boy Wonder of American movies, Spielberg is now working at the level of masterful old pros like William Wyler and Fred Zinnemann, directors whose combined mastery of craft and storytelling basically no longer exist in mainstream American filmmaking.

Spielberg is an anomaly—commercially the most popular filmmaker in history, one who hasn’t wanted for critical acclaim, and yet one who is still, in some very basic ways, either underrated or misunderstood. For years, the director was hounded by charges that he couldn’t be taken seriously as an adult filmmaker. That seemed to be settled once and for all with Schindler’s List. But both the people who loved the movie and the people who hated it wondered how Spielberg could possibly be up to this subject missed the obvious: Schindler’s List was a story about dealmaking, the tradeoffs agreed to in order to achieve the desired ends and the determination to hold onto something of yourself in the process. How could the most successful director in the history of Hollywood not understand that?

The praise and awards and box-office success of Schindlers set Spielberg up as a “serious” filmmaker. But it also uncovered a contradiction. Here was a director who wanted to take on adult subjects, who had the clout and financial success to do so, but who, having traded in his entertainer’s instincts for the mantle of seriousness, now seemed to be making work that was oddly impersonal. Take, for instance, the prestige snoozer Amistad, or Munich with its confused moral relativism, or Catch Me if You Can, which played like one of the wholesome family comedies Sam Goldwyn turned out in the ‘40s. Ventures into the realm of imagination, like Minority Report and A.I., were singularly joyless. And Spielberg’s two Jurassic Park movies showed not the ingenious mixture of comedy and fright that made Jaws such a blast but calculation as engineered as any other studio special-effects blockbuster. People took the boys’ book adventure that followed the grinding Grand Guignol opening of Saving Private Ryan seriously, but as a piece of filmmaking it wasn’t a patch on the unabashed boys’ book adventure of Raiders. You could see Spielberg’s craft in all these movies, but the narratives were wobbly, the tone emotionally uncertain (when, as in A.I. and Empire of the Sun, it wasn’t downright baffling), and the director seemed to have lost his ability to sweep audiences effortlessly into a story.

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Something changed for Spielberg with 2011’s War Horse, the story of a Devonshire boy, the colt he raises, their separation during World War I, and their eventual reunion.

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Something changed, though, with 2011’s War Horse, the story of a Devonshire boy, the colt he raises, their separation during World War I, and their eventual reunion. Michael Morpurgo’s novel had been the source for the hugely successful and stylized stage show. Spielberg, in turn, gave the novel the full Hollywood treatment, location shooting that had the luxe studio stylization of the ‘40s, and the result was stunning. As Dickens and Griffith and Puccini knew, sentiment pushed to its heights can be overwhelming, can offer the catharsis that great art promises. There are moments in War Horse that belong in that company: the ragged blade of a windmill passing in front of the camera at the very moment two German brothers, attempting to escape the slaughter awaiting them, are executed; a scared young soldier in the trenches calling quietly to a boyhood friend as mustard gas envelops him like a fog; the horse standing amidst the corpses of the battlefield, wrapped in barbed wire as if he were an equine Christ and this were his Passion.

There wasn’t anything as grand or bold in Bridge of Spies or The Post, and yet each one made you feel you were back in a time when we thought of movies as “the movies” and not just a release schedule of individual films. Spielberg directed each picture with the assurance of an old pro who knew that Hollywood stylization and even the stylization of the emotions Hollywood movies portray was a way of talking about the real world—a way for grown-ups to talk to other grown-ups, or to kids who wanted to be grown-ups. And these movies, one addressing Cold War machinations between the U.S. and the USSR, the other detailing a newspaper’s determination to defy Nixon’s White House and publish the Pentagon Papers, were entertaining as hell. You felt like you’d had a real night out and not as if you’d sat through a civics class.

But it was the easy mastery of those movies that made West Side Story such a shock. Here was a veteran director now in his early seventies confidently showing everything he’d learned about how to make a movie polished and entertaining, and how to sweep up an audience, effortlessly. But Spielberg also showed the brio of a young virtuoso seizing the chance to show what he could do.

No one was more surprised than me. I am neither a fan of the 1961 film, a brotherhood plea that’s both stiff and soggy, or of the musical itself. For me, Bernstein and Sondheim’s acclaimed score signals nothing so much as the death of the American Musical—the swing of jazz that underlay all the great musicals traded in for the high-toned pomposity of the concert hall, the wit and snap and romantic disrespect of Tin Pan Alley swapped for the recitative of the European art song.

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A scene from 2021’s West Side Story, one of Spielberg’s masterpieces.

20th Century Studios

I didn’t leave Spielberg and Kushner’s West Side Story believing I’d seen a great American musical, but I knew I’d seen a great American movie. The interval of more than sixty years since the Broadway show opened allowed Spielberg to present the past as a stylized place. Gone was the visual disjunction of the 1961 film with its ridiculous sight of chorus boys leaping into the air as they pranced past construction hoardings. Spielberg’s version opens with the camera taking in a vast overview of what used to be called “slum clearance” before ending on a sign telling us that we’re looking at the future site of Lincoln Center. It’s a purely punk gesture, Spielberg and Kushner laying the racial and cultural displacement we are about to witness right at the door of the temple where the likes of Bernstein and Sondheim are worshipped.

This West Side Story gave you exactly what you needed in order to be emotionally overwhelmed: enormously appealing young lovers you believed would die without each other; the sense of world that allows a cruel glimpse of new possibilities while the walls are closing in; and, instead of the let-all-men-live-as-brothers dreck of the 1961 version, an ending in which lives are shattered and bitterness has taken root and no one is ever going to be alright again. It is, maybe, the closest any American movie musical has ever come to noir.

This was a movie about the gentrification of New York City, but it was also about the gentrification of American movies. Is there any way to keep pretending that mainstream American moviemaking serves anyone but the MBAs running the studio and the conglomerates that own them? Major studio movies now are now little more than superheroes and fantasy and franchises of all sorts. Screenwriters are no longer expected to craft a coherent story, just string together moments of spectacle, which, for the most part, aren’t even orchestrated by the credited director but put together by special effects teams. (The Post was made during a month in which the other movie Spielberg was making at the time, Ready Player One, was worked on by its effects team.)

By taking on material that, no matter what you think of it, is an acknowledged American cultural touchstone, and by shooting it in majestic vistas of a crumbling urban landscape, and long, unbroken takes that glide among and between the dancers on a gymnasium floor, and by providing the kind of close-ups that give romantic leads a melting glamour, the kind that makes you feel the camera itself is falling in love, Spielberg was declaring that our movie past was—and that our movie present should be—more than the glorified erector-set crap to which the studios have surrendered. This was tradition as defiance. And its box-office failure left many people I know who cared about movies wondering if mainstream movies as we knew them were dead?

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In the opening scene of The Fabelmans, six-year-old Sammy Fabelman (center) gets taken by his parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams, left and right, respectively) to see his first movie—and he’s transfixed.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The most potent parts of The Fabelmans subtly convey what it was like for Spielberg to grow up in an America where the movies were part of the fabric of public life. In the opening scene, six-year-old Sammy Fabelman (Matteo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) gets taken by his parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) to see Cecil B. DeMille’s circus epic, The Greatest Show on Earth. It’s his first movie and he’s apprehensive; he’s not sure he’s going to like being in the dark. (I was worried about the same thing as a three-year-old being taken to Mary Poppins.) Of course, he’s transfixed, so awed by the scene of a locomotive crashing into a stalled car that he feels compelled to recreate it, and film it, with his own toy trains. But it’s not just what Sammy sees, but also what Spielberg shows us of the pop culture he is matriculating in. The New Jersey movie house is big and ornate, people are lined up to get in, not just sailing in with a booked ticket, and they’re all dressed for a night out. This, clearly, is something more than just sitting in your living room looking at TV. You see what’s changing in a scene set just ten years later when sixteen-year-old Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle), now living in Arizona, goes with his buddies to a matinee of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It’s a smaller theater, already showing signs of a future shabbiness, only a few people are scattered in the audience, and Sammy has to keep moving closer to the screen to get away from his friends’ chatter. The movie is still unspooling up there on the big screen but it’s on its way to becoming a ghost show.

The Fabelmans is, of course, about how young Sammy discovers those shadows have as much allure for him as real life, how he begins to make his own ever-bigger movies with his friends, and how he struggles when this thing that he loves reveals to him a world that he can’t control. Sammy lives with his three sisters; his father Burt (Paul Dano), a technical whiz whose ambitions and talents keep lifting him to ever more prominent jobs, first in Arizona and then in Southern California, is a good and decent man, but he can’t overcome a certain passivity and distance in his family life. He’s most at home with his gadgets. Sammy’s mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams), is the family artist, a once-aspiring concert pianist who has packed her ambitions away. Mitzi’s nails, worn long and lacquered, click on the keyboard whenever she plays, a nice detail signaling how she’s given up her passion for the role of ‘50s housewife and mother. But not totally. Her insistence on using paper tablecloths and plates and plastic utensils—at the end of the meal she just bundles it all into the garbage—is the sign of someone who’s decided housework is a waste of energy. And the striking blonde Louise Brooks bob Williams wears is an outward emblem of what’s heartbreaking in her performance—a sign of determined bohemianism amid the prosperous middle-class culture of the ‘50s. There’s another sign of Mitzi’s longing: her husband’s best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), the man who’s always around, always a guest at dinner or on family outings. Mitzi is in love with him, as he is in love with her. Rogen underplays beautifully, capturing the poignance of a man whose good-guy bonhomie masks his yearning for the woman always so agonizingly close. He’s terrific, as is Dano who conveys, simultaneously, what makes Burt such a good man and so lackluster a husband.

But this is Williams’s movie. Both she and Spielberg could have taken their cue from that impossibly lovely line in the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” “If one of them played the part/they wouldn’t turn around and hate it.” Spielberg isn’t saying American middle-class life of the ‘50s and ‘60s was a sheltered lie. He sees its vitality and its pleasures too keenly for that. And if Williams is essaying a version of what Betty Friedan would call “the problem that has no name,” she doesn’t make Mitzi a woman who feels no joy in her children or her marriage, or one who feels her whole life is a lie. The pain you see in Williams’s performance is a woman who cherishes all that and still knows it’s not enough. There are times when you look at Williams’s wide-open face and beaming smile and you see both the joy and the torment there, and it hurts to look at her.

Spielberg has talked openly about how Mitzi is his own mother, Leah, who left his father to be with the man she loved, Bernie Adler—Bennie in The Fabelmans—when Spielberg was 21. (Before she died, Spielberg told her of his wish to tell this story; she was all for it.) Had she been alive to see The Fabelmans, I can’t imagine she would feel her son hadn’t honored her. Spielberg is very careful to show that Sammy’s adolescent anger over his mother’s love for Bennie (which he discovers in stray home-movie shots he takes during a family camping trip) is that of a boy too young to understand how love and desire and longing make a mess of everything.

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Michelle Williams as Mitzi is so captivating in The Fabelmans that everything else can’t help but feel lackluster in comparison.

Courtesy of Universal Pictures

These moments are so potent that, by comparison, Sammy’s fledgling artistry and adolescent travails just aren’t as compelling. And yet that’s what we’re left with when Mitzi exits the picture. The movie introduces the idea that Sammy will have to choose between dedication to his art and dedication to the people in his life (unfortunately, via a brief appearance by Judd Hirsch as Sammy’s great uncle in a grotesquely overdone bit of Yiddish caricature) and clearly The Fabelmans is Spielberg’s way of honoring both. But when we see Sammy withdrawing during a family argument to imagine how he would shoot the scene, I didn’t buy that this was some early sign of the distance necessary for an artist’s life. It seemed like a quite understandable coping mechanism. And the long section in the final third of the movie, where Sammy, newly transplanted to a prosperous and WASPy Northern California high school, runs afoul of the school’s jock anti-Semites, feels overdetermined. These golden boy Jew haters are caricatures and not particularly interesting ones. While Sammy is trying to both prove himself smarter than these proto-Aryan testosterone dumps, and to fit in (he acquires a Catholic girlfriend who, refreshingly, doesn’t separate her horniness from her love for Jesus), this section of the film felt both rote and emotionally confused—the one that, in a two-and-a-half-hour movie, most needs trimming.

But you’d have to be a mingy little soul not to see the delight and sometimes the loveliness of The Fabelmans. Part of the current derangement of American movies is that one of the most successful and popular directors to ever work in the medium is making what would once have been considered movies for a mass audience and are now essentially for a specialty market—things the studios can point to as proof that they are still interested in making quality films. The Fabelmans lacks the scope and the daring of Spielberg’s best work from the last eleven years, movies that recreate our historical and aesthetic past while providing a direct emotional and political link to our present. But this fond look back is recognizable as the work of a filmmaker conscious of how the medium that has sustained him, and in which he’s taken his place beside the filmmakers he reveres, is currently desecrating itself by reducing movies to products to be consumed and forgotten.

Spielberg was always the least rebellious, the most traditional of his generation of American filmmakers. The classic genres were good enough for him as they were. He didn’t look to them to do what his contemporaries like Coppola and Scorsese and De Palma and Altman did, which was to use Westerns and gangster movies and horror films and even musicals to bring in political and historical and personal realities that the studio system kept movies from addressing directly. And yet, right now, Spielberg has a particularly acute vision of our history and of how one of his country’s greatest cultural achievements, the glory of popular movies, is on the verge of being wiped out.

It is the defiant victory of this late period of Steven Spielberg’s career that he is making movies, and making them better than ever, for an audience that may no longer have any idea of how to watch them, an audience for whom the sight of two people talking, or a scene with shots that last more than two seconds, is some archaic, impenetrable language. Spielberg hasn’t become a bitter old man (as did Godard, who used Spielberg as a whipping-boy representative of the corruption of American movies, implying that Spielberg cheated Oskar Schindler’s widow and that he stole the rights to the testimonies of the Holocaust survivors his Shoah Foundation filmed) but he has become a representative of what a threat cultural memory can be to a corrupt established order. Looking back isn’t always nostalgia. Sometimes it’s a way of portraying the shabbiness of the present we’ve all so passively accepted.

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