Greetings again from the darkness. For most of us movie lovers, Steven Spielberg has been at the forefront of our cinema experiences since the mid-1970s. He has won 3 Oscars (along with 20 nominations) while delivering such classics and memorable films as: JAWS (1975), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), the “Indiana Jones” franchise (1981, 1984, 1989, 2008), E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982), THE COLOR PURPLE (1985), JURRASIC PARK (1993), SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), MINORITY REPORT (2002), CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002), LINCOLN (2012), and WEST SIDE STORY (2021). Remarkably, that’s a partial list of his films and doesn’t take into account others that he’s directed or produced, or his commitment to preserving film history. Despite (or perhaps because of) his diverse catalog of films, Spielberg always manages to find the human element while entertaining us. In fact, some have criticized him for putting too much emphasis on entertainment, as if that is somehow a problem.
As you likely know, this latest (co-written with his frequent collaborator Tony Kushner), is Spielberg’s look back at his own childhood, his family, and his early obsession with making movies. It’s a semi-autobiographical case study of the early development of one of our most influential and prolific and popular filmmakers … with some dramatic license taken for entertainment purposes, of course. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano star as Mitzi and Burt Fableman, parents to four children, including Sam Fableman (the stand-in for Steven). Mitzi is a former concert pianist who gave up her career to be a mom and wife, while Burt is an brilliant engineer working on the cusp of the computer age – this story begins just after WWII.
Most of us remember our first movie in a theater. This film opens with parents Mitzi and Burt taking young Sam to his first: Cecil B DeMille’s THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH (1952). This opening scene perfectly sets the stage. Engineer Dad details to his anxious son that movies are nothing more than lighting and still images being shown at 24 images per second, while artist mom assures him that movies are “dreams” (or as we interpret, “the stuff that dreams are made of”). It’s this contrast between mom and dad that have such an impact on Sam and the family, as we see this as they follow Burt’s career progression from New Jersey to Arizona to California. Mom encourages and supports Sam’s interest in filmmaking, while dad continually belittles it as nothing more than a hobby.
Gabriel LaBelle plays Sam as a teenager, and not only does he deliver a terrific performance, he also bears a striking resemblance to young Spielberg (the similarity startled me at first). Seth Rogen has a role as Bennie, a friend to the family – especially to Mitzi We see Sam’s struggles as a high schooler facing bullies and antisemitism for being a nerdy, non-athletic Jew, as well as the challenges he faces with his own family, and in a touching sequence, with first love. Two scenes involving non-family members really stand out. Uncle Boris (an energetic Judd Hirsch) comes to visit and explains how his lion-taming is an art form that he felt compelled to pursue, and that he sees that same artistic streak in Sam … while perfectly explaining how art and family ties can tug against each other, yet the artistic pursuit must never be forsaken. Another excellent scene occurs when Sam has a short meeting with a legendary director (a memorable cameo from director David Lynch) who offers a filmmaking tip that provides the film’s final shot gag.
As strong as LaBelle is as Sam, it’s Michelle Williams who truly shines in a complex role that is easily one of the best of the year. She’s an artist who knows she’s trapped and struggles to make the best of thing. – right up until she can no longer do so. Brining a pet monkey home is usually a good indicator that someone has reached their limit. Her depression and internal chaos lead to a break in the family, but in a way, serves to drive Sam forward in his pursuit of filmmaking. The great John Williams provides the score (of course), while cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (delivers masterful images. It’s rare for an (wildly successful) artist to open up about his family, his past, and his influences. Even though each scene and line of dialogue here has Spielberg’s stamp of approval, there remains a vulnerability in pulling back the curtain for others. We do see how so much of life goes into the work of an artist, and how the pursuit of a passion may or may not lead to happiness. Spielberg proves yet again when it comes to history and legend, print the legend.
***Note: the film leads us to believe that Spielberg stayed away from working in television, but in reality, he directed quite a few TV episodes, and his first movie was a made-for-TV movie entitled, DUEL … one I highly recommend.