The post WWII era between the late 1940s through the 1970s has been one of the main period filmmakers have focused on during the last 40-50 years. In the heydays following WWII, white flight moved White Anglo-Saxon Protestants from more cultural centralized neighborhoods in bigger citties to smaller towns, creating the suburbs.
Relatives on my dad’s side moved from the small-town rural area of lower Appalachia to the Detroit area to get jobs as the economy was booming. We visited them in the mid-1980s and most of the homes looked the same. It seemed everyone had a basement and not just a dank fruit cellar, but a basement that looked like you could spend more time down there than approve ground. Maybe that was something about the Mid-West during this era. People were hiding.
Steven Spielberg was born in December 1946, a year after VJ day and the end of World War II in the Cincinnati area. His family moved to the Phoenix area in 1957. He seemed like the typical post-WWII boy who was an Boy Scout, but his family was Jewish. And sometimes they were subjected to the anti-Semitism that was prevalant during this time that conservative Republicans have romanticized. But with The Fabelmans, Spielberg doesn’t go down the same route other filmmakers take.
It’s seems filmmakers want to deconstruct the myth of this period. You have Porky’s which portrayed the racism no one talked about and the vulgarity no one wanted to talk about. Parents used cannibalism as a form of confirmity. Then, National Lampoon’s Animal House showed the last year of innocence before the JFK assassination as madness is brewing. By Watergate, the era was over and done with as Gen Xers were born and The Stepford Wives showed how Americans were clinging to a past that never was but what they really wanted was the comfort they felt.
By focusing on a more personal story, Spielberg tells a family drama about the good times and the bad with a subtle but meaningful honesty. Starting off during Hanukkah in the early 1950s, Burt and Mitzi Fabelman (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) take their young son, Sammy, (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord) to see The Greatest Show on Earth. It’s his first movie and the young boy finds an interest in model trains from witnessing a train wreck scene in the movie.
Later while encouraged by Mitzi, he begins to film the train set recreating the wreck from the movie. Over time, Sammy becomes interested in shooting little movies, which Mitzi encourages but Burt sees as more of a hobby. Burt works as an electrical engineer for GE. He wants Sammy to focus on his studies so he can get a good job like him one day. Sammy films movies with his three sisters and even family holidays and trips. Other times, he gets his classmates and peers to appear.
Burt’s friend and colleague, Bennie Loewry (Seth Rogen), spends so much time with the family that everyone calls him “Uncle Bennie” and he appears to be the “Fun Uncle” the more stoic and reserve Burt is. Burt means well and loves his children and his wife, but he doesn’t seem to know how to control Mitzi’s behavior, which is becoming increasingly more worrisome. Upset that a move to Phoenix without Bennie isn’t possible, she takes the kids out to follow a tornado, having a breakdown.
Her behavior becomes more erratic over time as Bennie has followed the Fabelman’s to Phoenix. It’s apparent to the viewers but not the people around her, that Mitzi is having mental issues that can best be described as bipolar disorder depression. Things get worse after her mother dies and she worries about the sudden visit from her uncle Boris Podgorny (Judd Hirsch). Boris seems eccentric as he used to work in the film industry as well as for the circus. This excites Sammy, now a teenager played by Gabrielle LaBelle, as he continues to make movies with better equipment and wants to know more about Boris’ path.
However, Sammy discovers something while he is editing his footage. Mitzi and Bennie look too intimate during some moments. Even on family trips with her kids playing mere feet away, Mitzi isn’t shy about getting too close and affectionate to Bennie. At the same time, Burt seems oblivious to it or just doesn’t want to admit it. Dano plays Burt like someone who knows there’s a problem but is too afraid to say what he suspects. He’s afraid of upsetting Mitzi if it’s not true but doesn’t want to know if it’s true. The tragedy is that Bennie are Burt as true friends and Bennie loves the whole family.
But things only get worse when the Fabelmans have to move again to northern California where Burt gets an even better job with a better house. But MItzi is obviously in need of help as she goes and buys a pet monkey one day which doestn’t really phase Burt externally as he shows little emotion. Sammy also deals with anti-Semitism first hand from some bullies but because he’s Jewish seems to attract his first girlfriend, Monica Sherwood (Chloe East), who is a very devout Christian.
Spielberg, who co-wrote the script with Tony Kushner, said he’s been wanting to make this movie since the late 1990s, but didn’t out of fear it would hurt his parents. It’s obvious that both Burt and Mitzi are loving parents, but during this time, no one wanted to talk about mental illness and adultery. I get the feeling that Mitzi married Burt because she knew it would be a better marriage of convenience, but being a stay-at-home mother takes it toll on her. Her relationship with Bennie is the excitement she needs, which is why she encourages Sammy to film movies around the house because it breaks through the monotony of what was considered normal.
Only in the last decade have we really addressed what a lot of housewives and stay-at-home mothers went through during this era with mental issues that they treated with alcoholism and pills. And fathers like Burt thought all they needed to do was make more money to get the bigget homes and bigger cars so they could take the same road trips. Sammy is expected to go to college like the rest of the high schoolers he graduates with but he really wants to move to Los Angeles and make movies.
While Williams, Rogen and Dano do some of their best work, LaBelle is a surprise to see. There’s a scene between Sammy and Bennie where Bennie gets the hint that Sammy knows everything but neither want to come out and say it. The hard part is that Bennie still loves Sammy despite everything and encourages his filmmaking more than Burt does. Who is the better father figure for Sammy, Burt who works hard to put food on the table and a roof over the head, or Bennie who watches everything Sammy does with the excitement and encouragement he needs?
Hirsch, for the most part is a glorified cameo, but he makes it more memorable without playing off the same Jewish stereotypes we’ve seen before. I was very letdown we didn’t see more of Uncle Boris. He’s the type of character you’d wish had his own spin-off. That beng said, since the movie bounces around from three different states ending with a scene with Sammy meeting John Ford (a great cameo by David Lynch), it feels like a condensed version while still feeling too long at two and a half hours.
Even worse, Sammy’s sisters, Natalie, Regina and Lisa, seem to all mesh together and never come off as individuals. I feel more like each was given a line to say so it could equal out in the end. I’m not saying Spielberg doesn’t love his sisters and wished they could’ve been more fleshed out. But I think this was an example of “Kill Your Darlings.” Therefore, we never get a feeling for how the eventual divorce affects them.
But that’s the issue here. This is Spielberg’s own story told from his own point of view and how he remembers it. While most people want to remember their childhood and their younger years through rose-colored glasses, he shows us that it was both the best of times and the worst of times. I think that explains the surname, Fabelmans. This is like a fable. They seemed like the perfect nuclear family, but only when they tore down the stereotypes did they achieve the happiness. Mitzi goes back to Phoenix and lives with Bennie with her daughters.
Sammy goes off to college and Burt stays in California but only realizes now that he was wrong to call Sammy’s filmmaking a hobby and learns how to be supportive. Burt’s not a bad father. Dano, an actor I’ve had some issues with, gives one of the most honest performances of fathers ever and while they’re often portrayed as the bad guys or the fun parents, Dano and Spielberg show that sometimes they really don’t know what the hell they’re doing. And that’s the final lesson. We’re not suppose to know everything. Father doesn’t always know best but it doesn’t make him a bad person.
This might be his most personal movie and the type of a movie a director makes at this point in his life and career. While some people have argued that Spielberg’s better works were in the 1970s and 1980s, I’d say it was after making Schindler’s List, he finally found his real techniques. Some of the movies he’s made in the 2000s and 2010s have been just as good and even better than his earlier works. Minority Report and especially Munich show a more mature Spielberg.
And at 76, he shows no signs of retiring just yet.
What do you think? Please comment.