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TIFF 2022: The Fabelmans, The Good Nurse

Paul Dano, Mateo Zoryna Francis-Deford and Michelle Williams in The FabelmansPaul Dano, Mateo Zoryna Francis-Deford and Michelle Williams in The Fabelmans

After the first UFOs are sighted in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a group of true believers gather and wait for more to arrive. A light appears over the horizon, excitement builds—but disillusionment sets in when the approaching vehicles turn out to be helicopters, and everyone scatters. The chopper beams briefly look like trainlights, echoing the mini-train track Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) assembles in his family’s cramped living room and uses to try to demonstrate a math problem to son Barry by sending the train on a collision course towards a stalled miniature stockcar. The Fabelmans tells us where this image, among many recurring thematic and visual tics in Steven Spielberg’s work, came from: the very first movie he ever saw, The Greatest Show on Earth, that momentous event dramatized in Fabelmans‘s first two scenes. First, father Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano, his attenuated cadences part of the standard package deal) explains to Steven’s stand-in Sammy (Mateo Zoryna Francis-Deford as a seven-year-old, Gabriel LaBelle as a teenager) how celluloid projection and persistence of vision work in the most cinephilic and technically detailed scene in a multi-million Hollywood production since his contemporary Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (a movie made to educate children about the importance of film preservation). Then they go in and Sammy has his mind blown by…a scene of a train barreling down the track towards a truck stuck on the rails.

Spielberg’s told the story of that formative viewing before, but I missed it despite Close Encounters being one of my all-time favorite films. It’s unsurprising that The Fabelmans—long teased as a very personal project, but whose writing didn’t start until COVID, and whose production didn’t begin until Spielberg’s parents had died—acts as a kind of retroactive Rosetta Stone to recurring preoccupations and formative traumas. In some of its most interesting and illuminating parts, it works specifically as a belated source text companion to Close Encounters, which also makes sense: that was Spielberg’s last screenplay credit (by most accounts it was heavily rewritten by others) working from an original story of his own. As Greatest Show‘s train track scene plays out in the theater, Spielberg’s sound mix heightens the bass, volume and crash textures far louder than any 1952 technology could deliver. This enhancement could seem like an object example of a charge Spielberg detractors often make: that he doesn’t trust the audience, indulging in clobbering spectacle to make sure no one’s left behind.

Sammy is so hypnotized by this crash that, with the Super 8 camera he asks for as a Hannukah present, he sets out to recreate it. Burt’s puzzled as to why, so mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) explains, in extremely literal-minded fashion, that Sammy is trying to master chaos so he can control it and not be scared of it. Many of Spielberg’s films—with their various flavors of bad or merely disappointing fathers, permutations of divorce and preference for sexlessness—almost encourage viewers to assume the perspective of armchair psychologist, especially since, as he said in the 2017 HBO documentary about him, “I avoided therapy, because movies are my therapy.” Co-written with Tony Kushner, The Fabelmans does that interpretive work for us, often in scenes just as literal-minded and unsurprising in their interpretations as Mitzi’s exposition.

Covering 1952 to 1965, with the balance firmly on Spielberg’s high school years, The Fabelmans is an interior-bound historical reconstruction low on spectacular set-dressed exteriors, period-establishing needle-drops and TV shows in the background. Though the first shot cranes past hundreds of theater viewers waiting in line before arriving at the nuclear family unit, much of Fabelmans subsequently unfolds inside suburban houses and other not terribly prepossessing or populated spaces in 1.85—a rarity for the widescreen-defaulting Spielberg. As with his last use of the aspect ratio in The Post, much unfolds in foreground/background two-shot conversations framed with Spielberg’s characteristic precision; e.g. in a conversation between Brad and Sammy, note how the father leans forward precisely far enough at one point to reveal one of the toy airplanes that litter Spielberg’s work hanging from the ceiling. This fine meshing of performance and visual technique reaches an apex when Sammy repeatedly re-watches home movie footage of Mitzi and family friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) and discovers he’s inadvertently captured hand-holding and other markers of infidelity. In slow-mo, Sammy repeatedly plays a clip of Mitzi’s face quicksilver changing from one heavily telegraphed emotion to another as she falls backwards into Bennie’s arms, and I thought of the split-second discipline required to externalize this change in sync with the camera movement. Talking to American Cinematographer about making Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in 1984, Spielberg observed that

…it’s very hard to get actors in a highly charged emotional sequence to follow your pre-concepts and oblige every one of your paint-by-the-number directions. I wouldn’t ask an actor to do that if I made a relationship movie. E.T. was a relationship movie, and I didn’t storyboard it except for the 40-odd special effects shots which I had to storyboard for budgetary reasons. [… But for Temple of Doom, ] all the actors learned to act in a different way. They learned to paint their emotions by the number […and] fell into step with the storyboards. They were able to give credible performances when the light was hitting them at a certain time or when they hit the mark which put them into exact alignment with the bluescreen.

Moments like Mitzi’s fall make me wonder if Spielberg has managed to split the difference between this relationship/populist divide.

Sammy’s discovery is the first step to arguably the 20th century’s most famous and culturally consequential divorce; in the more immediate short term, it leads to a weird scene where Sammy shows his mom footage of her transgressions to precipitate her remorseful confession like a teenage Hamlet. Some of the marital discord here is illuminating as source material for Close Encounters: instead of the usual bad dad, here we have a Manic Mother who drives towards, rather than away from, a tornado, like Roy Neary manically chasing his vision. When Burt sees one of Sammy’s first amateur films, he enthuses that his son is just like him: both organize groups of people to solve problems. Both Spielberg’s biggest enthusiasts and detractors might likewise label him a master technician, whether positively or pejoratively, and both sides would have a point. Disappointingly, here this observation is less a reflection on the limitations of immaculate technique than a screenplay beat underlining up another dichotomy, between Art (mom) and Science (dad). If Fabelmans chooses (a totally acceptable level of) self-valorization in service of the former, one of Spielberg’s biggest gifts has arguably been turning his technical acumen towards non-intuitive, sometimes outright strange means; it’s no surprise he can’t separate the magic of the movies from their technology when remembering his first artistic experience.

That binary, and how it’s used to characterize the parents, feels like a false dilemma tangled up with leftover parental woes, which is indicative of The Fabelmans‘ “I don’t have a therapist” dump of memories. Spielberg progresses, more or less linearly, through an unwanted move from Arizona to California, high school bullying, anti-Semitism and divorce, all circling around the twin throughlines of familial dysfunction and filmmaking. The I Was a Teenage Whiz Kid strand is way more compelling, with Sammy gathering fellow Boy Scouts to shoot meticulously storyboarded westerns and war films on Super 8, graduating to Super 16 when documenting a high school beach day. (Early filmmaking scenes are soundtracked by Scott Joplin-imitating ragtime piano, connotationally suggestive of silent film, and hence almost equating the birth of the medium with Spielberg’s childhood.) Surrounding scenes invite us, with varying degrees of rhetorical clumsiness, to consider different aspects of how a particular type of filmmaker might be a control freak even when not at work and how that emotionally plays out with the people in their life. In practice, this means that, e.g., Judd Hirsch shows up for a two-scene cameo as Hollywood veteran Uncle Boris to rant about art and how it’ll rip you from your loved ones—yet another way of making Close Encounters‘ subtext into text.

The Fabelmans perks up when ditching the family for high school drama (Uncle Boris was right!), where the manipulative possibilities of narrative film get a less-stock-than-expected consideration; in its high school section, this is Spielberg’s most sustainedly and unexpectedly funny work since Bridge of Spies. The coda will be The Fabelmans‘ signature scene—and, again, it’s a dramatization of a story Spielberg’s told before, this time about meeting John Ford as a teenager. As long rumored, Ford is indeed played by David Lynch, a choice with a lot of iconographic implications. Lynch and Spielberg are both boomers with nostalgic taste in music cues, canny businessmen and, in their own ways, deeply indebted to classical Hollywood cinema; Lynch looks kind of like Ford, but not enough to justify his casting solely on those grounds, and it’s fascinating to see him enfolded within a very different contemporary’s work and to wonder what he signifies for Spielberg. But it’s equally notable that this entire anecdote, and the advice Lynch-as-Ford gives, is the setup for the final shot—the only jagged, faux-unplanned camera movement in Spielberg’s entire filmography. It’s notable that it takes all that exposition to excuse the only proscenium-breaking, “the author blinks” moment in Spielberg’s meticulously controlled work, a gesture so unexpected and delighted that it makes up for a lot.

Unlike Charles Graeber’s source nonfiction bestseller about Charles Cullen, there’s no irony intended in the title of the Tobias Lindholm’s film version of The Good Nurse. Cullen is likely the world’s most prolific serial killer (American exceptionalism at work once again)—his confessed-to death tally was 29, but the real number may be closer to 400—but the title here isn’t an ironic reference to either high-volume performance or any pretensions to mercy slayings. Instead, it unambiguously applies to Amy Laughren, a night-shift colleague of Cullen’s who helped lead to his arrest; as the end titles announce with a thunk, “She is still a good nurse.” With cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes rendering his characteristic slow zooms in 14 shades of grey, The Good Nurse is a determinedly non-lurid dramatization of this story that’s tonally a long distance from an unabashed come-on like “I Stopped a Serial Killer” (the name of the first half of the Katie episode Laughren appeared on while promoting the book).

The Good Nurse first introduces Cullen (Eddie Redmayne) in one of those slow zooms at a hospital in 1996 watching a patient die, then cuts to New Jersey, 2003 and the plight of Amy (Jessica Chastain), an extremely caring nurse in desperate need of a heart transplant. She’s trapped in the kind of potentially lethal catch-22 American employers specialize in: her high-stress job might kill her, but she’s four months shy of the year working at the hospital necessary to qualify for the health insurance she needs to both take time off and pay for the operation. New night nurse Cullen is so helpful in helping relieve the difficulty of her shifts that it takes a second to put together the correlation between his employment and the sudden rash of unexpected patient deaths.

Two police detectives arrive to investigate one of these suspicious fatalities—seven weeks after it takes place, called in by hospital administrators fearful of liability issues who accordingly provide a scant, clearly selective portion of the relevant records and refuse to let employees be interviewed without someone from management present. From the get-go, the film correctly identifies health insurance administrators and their hospital counterparts as among the very worst people in America, an impressive achievement given how long that list is; Cullen was a killer but not the ultimate villain. Admittedly, the specific representatives in question—a hospital administrator (Kim Dixon) and lawyer (David Levine)—glower with the unignorable malevolence of SVU guest-stars (or maybe Jeroen Krabbe’s pharmaceutical rep in The Fugitive), but the movie’s heart is unquestionably in the right ideological place.

One Amazon review of the book comes from “Somebody’s Nurse,” a fellow practitioner who was at first outraged by Graeber’s ironic title and emailed him. In their subsequent exchange, he “mentioned that he did not go into more detail about Cullen himself, because the man was fairly uninteresting as a personality.” This comes across in Good Nurse despite the usual high-energy effort put in by Redmayne, a reliably twitchy performer; the tremulousness of his American accent here only adds to his avian oddity. Yet his Cullen remains close to a cipher, in part because the real killer’s motivations remain opaque and quizzical. Chastain offers another immaculate rendition of suffering, although her particular conception of feminism (possibly best described as “Hillary Clinton-adjacent”) is probably the reason for a weird mid-film scene when her daughter, rehearsing for a school play about an alien invasion, says she fears it’s weird that she, as a girl, is playing a mayor. Chastain and Redmayne roll their eyes: a woman mayor is the least plausible part of an alien invasion? Then it’s back to low-energy true crime business. Biosphere’s doom-laden score is loudest and most unignorable when not much is happening but strangely silent at moments of greatest theoretical tension; when Redmayne and a now-scared Chastain interact one-on-one, there’s a puzzling lack of suspense where, for once, music might helpfully fill the void. In his solo directorial debut, A Hijacking, Lindholm went for conspicuous realism—no non-diagetic score, lots of nonprofessional actors playing their real-life roles; this is neither thriller nor realism, but somewhere in the drably stylized middle.

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