Much ado about Spielberg

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Much ado about Spielberg

Steven Spielberg has directed some of the most popular mass appeal films ever made — Jaws, E.T., the Indiana Jones trilogy, and Jurassic Park — as well as some genuinely great and serious films like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Lincoln. Though he has never had the sort of cult following that other famous directors of less-profitable films have attracted, there’s no denying that his long resume makes him an important figure in film history. So, it’s not surprising that after a half-century of unrivaled success, he was interested in telling his own story. The result is the semi-autobiographical The Fabelmans.

But popularity and even importance don’t necessarily make for a compelling biographical tale. The arc of Spielberg’s life and career is pretty much the opposite of that of a stereotypical struggling artist who must go on a long and arduous journey toward recognition of his genius.

As an aspiring filmmaker, he dropped out of college and was tapped by Universal Studios to write and direct his own short film at the age of 22 and then was employed to direct television episodes. Three years later, he directed his first feature film, Duel. By the time he was 30, Jaws had made him the hottest director in Hollywood. By 40, he was already a film institution as well as fabulously rich and able to spend the following decades picking and choosing projects that were also invariably great successes.

Now 75, Spielberg stands atop the entertainment world as a figure of unique influence and clout, as well as a major donor to Democratic Party politicians who espouse the liberal views he favors.

But the story Spielberg wants to tell about himself is not about how he made movies that made a lot of money. Instead, he gives us what German intellectuals called a “bildungsroman,” a tale of his psychological and moral growth from childhood to young adulthood as he went from making home movies with an 8 mm camera to the man who would set Hollywood on fire in his 20s.

But even here, Spielberg has no tales of hardship or struggle to spin. The product of an upwardly mobile middle-class Jewish family that both encouraged his passion for film and was able to subsidize a not-inexpensive hobby, his path to eventual stardom, if not paved with roses, certainly had few thorns or genuine obstacles. The Fabelmans is not exactly a story of a family taken out of a 1950s sitcom — the centerpiece of its narrative is the unraveling of his parents’ marriage — but neither is it the stuff of high drama.

The young Sammy Fabelman, the character who is the stand-in for Spielberg, has his moments of revelation as he discovers his calling. And he has moments of angst as he copes with the discovery that his beloved artistic mother is in love with the best friend of his down-to-earth nice guy engineer father. But it’s far from clear why we would care about him or his family’s comings and goings if we didn’t already know in advance that the boy dealing with this rather tame soap opera triangle will become the man who gave us beloved movies about sharks, dinosaurs, and heroes of the Holocaust and World War II.

The visit of a theatrical great uncle played by Judd Hirsch, employing a thick Eastern European accent, whose purpose is to presage Sammy’s choosing the artist’s life, provides humor. But it’s also a clumsy and obvious plot device. There’s just not a lot to grab on to for pathos in the specifics of this upbringing. What’s interesting about director Steven Spielberg’s life seems to be the directing.

Nor does Spielberg’s desire to highlight his Jewish identity do much to add to the narrative. Yes, he grew up in the one suburban home on the block without Christmas lights and with Hanukkah celebrations and some stereotypical Jewish relatives. A move to California does lead to his first encounter with antisemitism at his new high school. But even when faced with that trial, just like in a typical Spielberg film, it all turns out for the best. A violent encounter with a thuggish non-Jewish jock leads him to a tryst with a Jesus-besotted teenage beauty who decides that the first Jew she has ever met, Sammy, is someone she wants to make out with while vainly trying to convert him. Even the jock eventually comes around to befriend and defend Sammy after the hero’s film of the senior class’s day at the beach makes him look like one of the Aryan athletes in Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi epic Olympia.

As a tale of antisemitism, this example does more to explain why Jews have achieved unprecedented acceptance and success in America than it does to, as Spielberg claimed in a New York Times interview about the film, highlight a resurgence of hate that he blames on “an invitation to a toxic dance” issued by former President Donald Trump in 2015.

Still, The Fabelmans is not without its moments of insight and even wonder. The film’s best moment comes early on as Spielberg relates how his first trip to the movies, to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth with his parents, left him awestruck by a climactic train crash. A desire to recreate the fear and thrills the scene gave him led first to crashing his toy trains and then filming it so he could experience it over and over again. The joy of discovery and of the evocation of powerful emotions through film provides a genuine moment of revelation.

The emotional centerpiece of the movie is Michelle Williams’s portrayal of Mitzi, Sammy’s eccentric and emotionally torn mother. Williams’s performance is mesmerizing and luminous, far more memorable than any of the autobiographical touches that seek to help us understand how the affable Sammy became a Hollywood mogul.

Perhaps Spielberg’s accomplishments make him deserving of a movie about himself, even if there’s little in it to hold one’s interest. But one still leaves the theater wondering why we’re supposed to care about an artist’s origin story so bereft of dramatic tension. Taken as a whole, the impression that The Fabelmans leaves is reminiscent of some of his greatest popcorn triumphs in which well-acted professional storytelling and easy-to-understand sentimentality prevail. Spielberg’s fictional family has its problems, but it is a genial, well-meaning bunch whose adventures provide the sort of unchallenging entertainment that can make for a pleasant but otherwise forgettable evening at the movies. For all of its competent filmmaking, The Fabelmans is very much less than the sum of its parts.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org and a senior contributor to the Federalist. Follow him on Twitter @jonathans_tobin.

© 2022 Washington Examiner

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