Modern American culture is often rushed, superficial, vulgar, and mediocre. In parallel, American politics are aggressive, reactive, destructive and despairing. Nevertheless, amid this new nihilism, Steven Spielberg – of all people – has gone counter-cultural. His new semi-autobiographical movie, which this week nabbed five Golden Globe nominations, is 2022’s most delightfully un-woke, unabashedly patriotic, movie.
The Fabelmans reaffirms America’s central, hope-generating, fable – that individual talent and ambition still count.
Most critics emphasize how personal it is – and it is. Spielberg shares that searing moment in his adolescence when his parents announced their divorce. Watching two good mismatched people spin away from one another is as terrifying as Jaws. The fear sits there, hovering, even on a seemingly innocent camping trip, when the waters seem calm. Although you gradually realize it is inevitable, when Spielberg’s mom “Mitzi” breaks, finding her true emotional home with the father’s best friend “Bennie,” you feel shaken nevertheless.
This movie explains the menacing undercurrent lurking in Spielberg’s suburbia, from ET to Poltergeist. The Fabelmans’ move in the early 1960s from one lovely suburban house to another. But the material success only exacerbates the marital misery.
Most surprising – and mostly overlooked – is the third plot line Spielberg and his co-screenwriter Tony Kushner intertwined so deftly. Beyond tracking a crumbling marriage and an emerging filmmaker making cinematic magic amid the chaos, the movie offers a disturbingly relevant exploration of one Jew’s response to the casual Jew-hatred that sporadically haunts America.
One Jew's response to American casual antisemitism
In displacing his family to Northern California, the Fabelmans’ father exiles Sammy, the Spielberg character, from his Promised Land – Arizona. The Fabelmans’ childhood in Phoenix is a red-white-and-blue idyll against the tan sand and yellow sun. Their desert backyard becomes the empty canvass on which Sammy starts painting his Hollywood dreams.
His friendship circle is organically integrated: Jewish and non-Jewish, light-skinned and dark-skinned, tall and short, nerdy and athletic. The Phoenix kids romp around happily. They are united by a fun-loving spirit, great camaraderie, and their all-American scout uniforms.
NONE OF that prepares Sammy for his new high school nightmare. There, difference is weaponized. In Arizona’s naturally-integrated society, people who look, think, and feel differently can still be friends. Suddenly, even the most natural variations become excuses for bullying.
The jocks torment the nerds, while the non-Jews mock the Jews. Sammy’s hazing shows how silly it is to caricature American Jews as white or privileged – then or now – no matter how big their houses or how successful their families might be.
Before California, the Fabelmans’ Jewishness is reduced to some charming, depressingly superficial, contrapuntal ethnic tics. The Fabelman kids learn that non-Jews get to illuminate their houses for Christmas, but Jews get eight nights of presents. Suddenly, in California, Sammy’s Jewishness becomes a weakness to overcome.
Yet in classic American fashion, overcome it he does. Sammy takes his lumps, not telling his parents who it was that beat him for being Jewish. He joins no organizations, makes no protests. And, unlike today, he rejects the bigots’ ethnically-clouded or race-colored lenses. He understands that you can’t fight the irrational caricatures that people impose on their differences by further emphasizing those differences.
He trusts America, America’s ideals, American individuality, and the American dream. Without speechifying or whining, he rolls up his sleeves, working hard to outsmart and outdo his tormentors. Sammy refutes the libel that he as a Jew killed Jesus by noting that to be guilty, he, a teenager, would have to be 2,000 years old. Clearly, in Spielberg’s America, brainiacs still rule.
In the climactic final scene, both bad guys get their comeuppance. Sammy’s moviemaking virtuosity launches celluloid-guided missiles, hitting the bullies’ insecurities where each is most vulnerable. Chad is publicly humiliated, caught being buffoonish by the all-seeing camera. More subtle – and Spielbergian – is Logan’s punishment.
Sammy uses his camera, Hollywood style, to deify him. After the audience drools, Logan cries. Like so many thin-skinned Tinseltown egotists that Spielberg undoubtedly knows, Logan recognized how the audience’s celebrity-addled adulation highlights just how pathetic his life actually is.
The final showdown makes the movie feel like a Western set in Spielberg’s natural habitat, suburbia. The movie ends on a Hollywood backlot, with Sammy skipping off into a “technicolor” sunset. And, as we all know, he gets to become Spielberg – his persecutors don’t.
The Fabelmans echoes Hollywood classics, from the 1941 Budd Schulberg novel, What Makes Sammy Run, to the 2010 Facebook-based biopic The Social Network. This timely and timeless ode to the American dream actually fits into a longer literary tradition. From The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin to Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Americans have long loved this narrative: self-made man or woman does well – then does good. But it only works by embracing American opportunity, not trashing America as systemically broken.
Alas, such stories – and ideals – are terribly unfashionable these days. That Hollywood aristocrats like Spielberg and Kushner are defying the tide may suggest that the long-predicted backlash against wokeness is coming. These thoughtful auteurs understand that America, let alone Hollywood, without its dreams is like a flower without water – it wilts quickly. And those dreams cannot liberate or motivate if they envision a balkanized people stuck in despair, negating individual gumption.
America today needs these patriotic pick-me-ups. Such confidence-inducing stimulants show that without a leap of hope, individually and collectively, individuals cannot get ahead – and democracies cannot progress.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American History and four books on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People (www.theljp.org).