Dad Arnold, played by Paul Dano, is presented as a genius light years ahead of his time in working on and designing computers. He also seemed to be more “in charge” of making decisions on where the family would live and work. You have to feel some empathy for the man whose wife left him for his best friend after 21 years of marriage.
Spielberg has said his father was a workaholic. His parents eventually divorced when Steven was 19. His mother, Leah Posner Adler, divorced his dad in 1966 and married one of his best friends, Bernie Adler, in 1967 in Phoenix. Portrayed as Uncle Benny Loewy in this film, Seth Rogen plays “the other man” within the Spielbergs marriage, and Rogen said he shaved his hairline back to play the part (commenting that nobody noticed and that they just thought he was balding!)
Steven stayed on in California with his father. He was not the brainiac his father had been in engineering complicated computer systems. He did not like the academic life, especially mentioning his dislike of algebra. From the beginning, he wanted to be a filmmaker. Uncle Boris, portrayed by Judd Hirsch in another Oscar-caliber role, perhaps nourished that seed more than any family member beyond Spielberg’s mother. According to Wikipedia, Spielberg was diagnosed as dyslexic at the age of 60; his creativity and imagination via his film work are legendary.
I usually take notes during a movie (a throwback to the days before IMDB, when you had to take notes, even if it was in the dark), I forgot my notebook this evening, or I would have recorded, verbatim, the line spoken by Michelle Williams as Spielberg’s Mom, which basically said that people should follow their hearts and nobody should give up their own life to satisfy others. We are told that his classical pianist mother gave up a promising career to marry in 1945, with young Steven born in December of 1946.
The film suggests that Steven’s Mom loved two men at the same time, one of them her husband, one of them his best friend Bernie Adler, dubbed Uncle Benny. Since Steven’s father had moved the entire family from Phoenix to California without much family discussion of whether his wife and the four children were in favor of that program, his mother’s departure in the film to return to Phoenix and Bernie (Uncle Benny) with Steven’s three younger sisters (while Steven stayed in California with his Dad) made sense.
The film addresses Spielberg’s being bullied because of his Jewish background, especially when he was the new kid in high school in Phoenix (a move from New Jersey, although the Spielberg roots in Cincinnati seems to have been glossed over). Once again, the young Spielberg (or Fabelman, here) turned to film, making a film for the Class of ’64 Ditch Day. He got revenge against all those who had been mean to him in high school onscreen; his film was well-received, but that segment of the film is not as interesting as the family divorce dynamic or, perhaps, some of his success in later life. Getting David Lynch to play Director John Ford, a true story, was more interesting than the Beach Blanket Bingo feeling of Spielberg’s Ditch Day project.
I have to believe that the anecdote involving filmmaker John Ford that ends the film is true (sources confirm it is) and that his mother really did buy a monkey; my neighbor across the street bought a monkey, so, to me, that was not the most outlandish concept to wrap my mind around. Otherwise, the office interaction of a young Steven Spielberg with an old John Ford bears little relevance to the plot itself, which traces the young filmmaker’s genesis from nerdy Jewish kid cast adrift in a Christian world right up to the very brink of his success in Hollywood. You almost feel that this should be a series that traces Spielberg’s soon-to-come successes, one by one.
The usual suspects aided Spielberg in this autobiographical memoir film. The cinematography is, once again, Janusz Kaminski, who has received multiple Oscar nominations and wins while working with Spielberg. Tony Kushner co-wrote the screenplay. The music by John Williams is their 29th collaboration. Williams has done the score for all but 5 of Spielberg’s films.
In addition to a nearly sure-fire Oscar nomination for Best Picture, the standoouts in their respective roles are Michelle Williams as his mother and Judd Hirsch as his Uncle Boris. The 20-year-old Canadian actor Gabriele LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman scored the role from among 2,000 applicants and does a very credible job. LaBelle has recently appeared in the television version of “American Gigolo,” portraying the younger version of Julian Kaye, the gigolo character portrayed by Jon Bernthal.