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“Lincoln,” director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s 2012 drama about the passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution by the House of Representatives, is a good movie, but it’s a little hokey. The climactic scene wherein the House finally votes to approve the amendment is typical of the whole: As jubilation takes hold of the chamber, lofty wind instruments play generic Americana. The “History” side of me cheers on the fact that the story is being told for a wide audience — the “& Literature” side just wishes it weren’t done so sentimentally.
Such sentimentality is, perhaps, to be expected from the man who directed “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” but it comes as a bit of a surprise from the man who wrote “Angels in America.” Not that sentimentality is always a fault — “E.T.” is a great film, and Spielberg is responsible for many of those — but there is some potential in the Spielberg-Kushner partnership that was not realized by “Lincoln,” nor by last year’s “West Side Story,” which went all-in on the Kushnerian critique but lost just a little of the Spielberg magic.
“The Fabelmans” regains that magic by being intensely a Steven Spielberg picture and, equally intensely, a Tony Kushner screenplay. It is a celebration of cinema and a celebration by Spielberg of the love he puts into his films — and not, contrary to some critics’ interpretations, of himself, which is why “The Fabelmans” is a joyous artifact rather than an obnoxious one. It brings Spielberg, and us, back to the setting of mid-to-late-century suburbia as imagined by the man himself, and when author-insert Sammy Fabelman and his sisters walk for the first time to their new high school, one feels a rush of excitement at the nostalgic familiarity of it all.
Yet “The Fabelmans” is also analytical, and critical, of the gaze that has permeated Spielberg’s work. Spielberg worked with Kushner extensively on the screenplay — must have done, because the movie excavates his parents’ marriage and its effect on his filmmaking. It psychoanalyzes Spielberg in an almost Freudian fashion. What’s more, “The Fabelmans” interestingly suggests that the rose-colored lens through which Spielberg has shot white, goyische, suburban America has been for Spielberg a means both to have some part of an ideal that, as a mildly nebbishy 5’8” Jew, he was never to achieve and to take revenge on the owners and inhabitants of that very ideal. And the film is able to execute this synthesis of analysis and entertainment so well not only because Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner are very good at their jobs but also because, when you’ve had the impact on cinema that Steven Spielberg has had, autobiography is film history, and film history autobiography. The analysis is a natural outgrowth of the material.
What I keep coming back to is how fast the movie goes by. It’s two and a half hours long, and I was startled when I looked at my watch for the first time during the movie and realized there was just a half-hour left. That’s because the movie feels like vintage Spielberg — only with a newfound maturity and critical remove from itself. Frederick Douglass once asserted that the “process by which man is able to invent his own subjective consciousness into the objective form, considered in all its range, is in truth the highest attribute of man’s nature.” In “The Fabelmans,” Speilberg achieves this — without, however, getting so far afield of subjectivity as to lose a touch that really can be best described in one word: “Spielbergian.”
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