The Auteur of Fatherhood

How Steven Spielberg recast American masculinity

Phillip Maciak

Steven Spielberg’s early films conjure all of his moviemaking magic to repair a world of lost dads. Spielberg and Henry Thomas in a scene on the set of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in 1982. Fotos International/Getty Images

In november 2012, the Obama White House held a special screening of Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln. The event was something like a summit for American dad cul­ture. Barack Obama, as the father of two young daughters, had already become the foremost ambassador of the straight-leg-jean, mortifying-dad-joke style of Gen X male leadership (even if he was technically a late boomer). And here he was, hosting the exhibition of a film based on Team of Rivals (2005), Doris Kearns Goodwin’s magnum opus of “dad history” (tomes about war, politics, and “Great Men” that make excellent gifts for boomer dads), and made by Spielberg, the conflicted boomer king of what you might call “dad cinema.” In films like 1998’s Saving Private Ryan and the HBO miniseries he had produced with Tom Hanks, Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010), Spielberg had blended gritty, gory realism with male sentimentality and defined an entire genre of onscreen dad history.

But Spielberg did not become the premier dad auteur of American cinema just by making movies that micro-targeted men who wear cargo shorts year-round and assert dictatorial control over their home thermostats. He also did it by being one of the greatest popular critics of the failures of dadly masculinity in the twentieth century. Nearly every one of his films is, in some subter­ranean way, about his parents’ divorce, and many of his most iconic films—from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) to the Indiana Jones series—are haunted by absent fathers, dads abandoning their children for obsession, for pride, for madness, for infidelities large and small. Spielberg makes precision-crafted films to flatter dadly sensibilities; he also makes movies for children, warning them that, one day, those dads might choose to disappear. And sometimes—especially of late—he makes movies that do both.

In the years that followed that screening, Spielberg’s interroga­tion and articulation of dad culture has only continued, with mov­ies and series about dads (like last year’s autobiographical feature The Fabelmans) and for them (like Masters of the Air, the Apple TV+ miniseries about World War II pilots that premiered in January). Spielberg, it’s now clear, is not just an ambivalent avatar of the dad culture he grew up with. Instead, his films have helped invent the “dad” as we know it.

but what is a “dad,” anyway? While “dad” has come to be a with­eringly descriptive adjective (dad jokes, dad rock, dad hats, dad bods), conjuring up harmlessly bad puns, rock bands that have lost their edge, soft-crowned caps, and soft bellies, for much of the twentieth century the word was still becoming a noun of its own. Children have been calling their fathers “dad” since the six­teenth century at least, and across many, many different cultures. Linguists suspect its etymology is simply that it’s a sound that’s easy for babies to say. But it has only been a meaningful epithet in the American vernacular since the early twentieth century. As sociologist Ralph LaRossa writes, the idea of the dad as something separate from the father—or rather something that came to be associated with a very specific, modern version of fatherhood—is a product of the Machine Age between the two world wars.

Herman Munster is, in an almost literal way, the monstrous apotheosis of Ward Cleaver.

Tracking usage of the phrase in popular magazines, LaRossa found that “dad” went from hardly ever being deployed in arti­cles about fatherhood at the beginning of the century to appear­ing in almost two-thirds of articles by 1929. LaRossa credits this meteoric rise to changes in the conception of the father’s role in the American household. At the end of the nineteenth century, notes the historian John Demos, the dominant cultural image of the father was the “Victorian patriarch,” a figure of authority, of dis­tance, even of danger. That vision of the fatherly character would deteriorate quickly in the opening decades of the new century. Out of the house as the family’s primary breadwinner but also, as a result, laughably inept at fitting in to the domestic sphere, the dad remained the “head of the household” but also became seen as more of a comic, occasionally incompetent participant in its rituals. And that shift to a softer, friendlier, more ironized view of fathers maps onto the growing usage, even the primacy, of “dad.”

Dads’ place in American popular culture was cemented with the emergence of television and its first great native form, the sitcom. The most iconic of these early TV dads, Ward Cleaver, is something like a hybrid of the Victorian patriarch and the mod­ern, mockable dad. Nearly every episode of Leave It to Beaver (1957) ends with Ward delivering wise life lessons to Beaver, punctuating the day’s hijinks with a wholesome fatherly moral. But Ward was not immune to getting caught up in his kids’ capers or demonstrat­ing his inability to, say, master a suburban kitchen. Despite the nostalgic aura of that bygone style of fatherly leadership, despite all the cardigans and the meerschaum pipes, the Beav called Ward Cleaver “Dad.”

It’s telling that, within seven years of creating Leave It to Beaver, writers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher were producing The Munsters. Herman Munster is, in an almost literal way, the monstrous apo­theosis of Ward Cleaver. He is lovable, yes, and sometimes wise, but he is primarily a bumbler, a goof and a flake, who usually has to learn life lessons from his worldly kids and patient wife rather than the other way around. (In parallel to the rise of the doofy sitcom dad, this is also when we see the emergence of the unflappable—smarter, better-looking—sitcom wife.) Instead of merely being constrained by the walls of the suburban home, Herman Munster walks right through them, leaving behind a dad-shaped hole.

As the popular website TV Tropes correctly observes, then, the “Standard ’50s Father” exemplified by Ward Cleaver was a trope that started to be subverted almost as soon as it was established. From Herman Munster forward, the “Bumbling Dad” was the standard, and many of the iconic fathers that defined the sec­ond half of the twentieth century on TV were variants of it. Less than propping up a new vision of dadliness, the American sitcom as a form has long occupied itself with dismantling the image of unquestioned, omnipotent, and omniscient fatherly authority. The sitcom did—and does—the ideological work of making domestic­ity seem both accessible and appealing precisely by establishing the dad as a figure of fun. You can be flawed, you can be fumbling, as long as you’re there. RIP to the Victorian patriarch, dead at the hands of Herman Munster, Mike Brady, Cliff Huxtable, Homer Simpson, and Phil Dunphy.

there are no sitcom dads—bumbling, wise, or otherwise—to be found in Steven Spielberg’s dad canon, though. If the forces of the sitcom, working to deflate and stabilize the dad, were arrayed against an anachronistic model of male parenthood, Spielberg’s sometimes buoyant, sometimes anguished, alternately reverent and rageful films trained their gaze on his absence.

It is not a new or particularly original insight to suggest that Spielberg’s films show a keen interest in fatherly abandonment, nor is it difficult to trace that obsession back to Spielberg’s own life. As dramatized in The Fabelmans, Spielberg’s parents divorced when he was a teenager. His mother was having an affair with his father’s best friend, but instead of laying the blame at her feet, Spielberg’s father insisted to the children that he was responsible for the divorce. During much of the time that Spielberg was mak­ing his name as a blockbuster director in Hollywood, he and his father were estranged—and it shows.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind is about a man who abandons his family and devotes his life to the obsessive search for alien life. E.T. is about a child of divorce having to discover an alien life form in order to feel seen. Empire of the Sun (1987) is about a young boy who goes on an epic coming-of-age quest only after being sepa­rated from his parents.

In 1985, Spielberg himself became a father, and his subsequent films started to blur his own traumatic youth with anxieties about the kind of dad he would be. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), a film that uses “Dad!” as a recurring catchphrase, reveals Indy’s whole career as an adventurer to be essentially a reaction to a stern, distant father who functionally abandoned him for the fantasy of the grail quest. At one point, Indy even says it out loud, telling his dad (played by Sean Connery): “If you’d been an ordinary, average father, like the other guys’ dads, you’d have understood that. . . . What you taught me was that I was less important to you than peo­ple who’d been dead for five hundred years in another country. And I learned it so well that we’ve hardly spoken for twenty years.” His dad responds with a punchline that feels like a real punch: “You left just when you were becoming interesting.” Hook (1991), unsurpris­ingly, is about a workaholic dad who saves his son’s life and recom­mits to his children after discovering he was once a Lost Boy himself.

Spielberg’s early films, then, conjure all of his moviemaking magic to repair a world of lost dads. If the sitcoms of the eight­ies were about dads who were always present (if never imposing), Spielberg’s cinema was mostly bereft of them. In depicting the impact of their absence, Spielberg made a forceful argument for their necessity.

In the mid-1990s, Spielberg and his father reconciled, but the director’s focus on fathers did not wane. Instead, it split. 1998’s Saving Private Ryan is dedicated to Arnold Spielberg, himself a vet­eran of World War II. (The first line of dialogue in the movie is “Dad!”) That film, and the HBO miniseries it spawned, represents a kind of reparative ode to his father’s generation. Some of these men returned home to become bumbling yet wise sitcom dads; some returned home as transformed, dour versions of themselves, unrecognizable to their lovers, inaccessible or abusive to their chil­dren. Some never returned at all. But Spielberg in “dad cinema” mode is a Spielberg eager to construct an idealized heroic vision of fathers in tribute to his own.

Indeed, it is not just that Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers are about the boomers’ dads doing heroic things. The central figures in both—Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller and Damian Lewis’s Major Winters—are defined as fundamentally fatherly figures, shepherd­ing their men through danger and, in Miller’s case, looking for a figurative lost son. The same is true in Masters of the Air. In fact, the last conversation two of the series’ main characters have after the war is won, as they are about to return home, is about fatherhood. “You’re gonna be a hell of a father,” one says. “You think?” says the other, a heroic navigator we have just watched go out of his mind on uppers and cheat on his wife. “I know,” his friend replies.

But that is not the only type of story Spielberg told in that era. If the normie boomer dadliness of Saving Private Ryan rep­resented one side of Spielberg’s cinematic imagination, the other side was much messier than his former absent dad epics but also less invested in conjuring the latchkey magic of those melancholy adventures. In 2001, Spielberg made A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, a film about a deathless android boy and the series of father figures (and the one true mother) who leave him to rust. Catch Me If You Can (2002) is a twisted shadow play of the autobiographical story Spielberg would later tell straight in The Fabelmans, a tale of a boy so traumatized by his mother leaving his father for his father’s best friend that he devotes his life to devising and staging more and more complicated frauds. War of the Worlds (2005) is about how sometimes it takes a cataclysmic alien invasion to repair a rift between father and son.

Spielberg’s dad complex was not going anywhere, in other words. It was getting more unwieldy, more chaotic, more inter­mittently, wildly insightful. In some films, he was romanticizing not just his dad but the very idea of the dad, while messily working through the unresolved psychic trauma of absent dads in others. Spielberg was spiraling—brilliantly—in the aughts.

And then he met Tony Kushner.

spielberg’s late era is defined largely by the three strange, over­stuffed philosophical masterpieces he has made in collaboration with Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Tony Kushner: Munich (2005), Lincoln, and The Fabelmans. (He and Kushner also worked together on the remake of West Side Story [2021].) If the period after Spielberg’s emotional reunion with his lost father was bifur­cated into two modes—nostalgic paeans to the Greatest Generation and frenetic psychodramas of fraught fatherhood—Kushner tried to tie the room together. Up to that point, Spielberg’s career had been defined by the structuring absence or holy presence of the dad; his Kushner era would force him to uncomfortably imagine who exactly that dad was. Spielberg called The Fabelmans “$40 mil­lion of therapy,” but his entire collaboration with Kushner has the flavor of psychoanalysis. Each of the three Kushner scripts are, in a sense, works of Spielberg criticism, analytical investigations of the great artist’s daddy issues.

Their first collaboration, Munich, is a story about both hero­ism and absence (as the other two films are). A father abandons his infant child in a self-consciously heroic way, only to realize the hollowness and meaninglessness of his quest. Archetypal and per­sonal, Munich is in some ways a revision of Spielberg’s first dad film, Close Encounters. In that film, the dad builds mashed-potato mountains until they lead him to a world-altering revelation. His abandonment of his family, in retrospect, is the result of a sacred calling, the blessed sacrifice required to usher humanity into its communion with the galaxy.

The protagonist of Munich—Avner, a Mossad agent tasked with tracking down and assassinating the perpetrators of the Munich attack—begins the film with a similar sense of calling and duty. But, in Kushner’s hands, his story becomes one of deep regret and even shame. Instead of mashed potatoes, it’s bomb schematics and apartment layouts. Avner, whose child is born near the begin­ning of the film, enlists the patriarch of a happy French family to secure weapons and the locations of his targets, many of whom are themselves explicitly fathers, all of whom he kills. It’s dads all the way down. What kind of morality, Kushner makes Spielberg ask, can be born of unresolved trauma and anger? What kind of father leaves his child in order to visit violence upon his enemies, to dwell in the fantasy of revenge rather than the reality of his home? To what kind of home will he return?

This Lincoln—lethal and lost—is an Obama-era dad.

Lincoln, despite its dad history pedigree, is much in keeping with the messy morality of Munich and a far stranger film than it might initially seem. Kushner and Spielberg call upon the formida­ble icon of Abraham Lincoln to embody all of their messy-dad the­ory: Lincoln is heroic and compromised; he is a father to the nation who withholds his affection from vast swaths of it; he is a cold and distant Victorian patriarch to his eldest son, Robert, a griev­ing father to his lost son, Willie, and an active and engaged “dad” playing on the carpets of the White House with his youngest son, Tad. Lincoln’s sometimes disarming, sometimes cruel vacillation between the nineteenth-century fatherly norm of remote author­ity and the approachable bumbling frailty of the twentieth-century sitcom is the dynamic at the center of the film’s portrait of him. This Lincoln tells dad jokes; he abandons his children for the cause of the Union. During that screening, Barack Obama might have sat uncomfortably, feeling the parallels with his forebear to be deeper and more unsettling than the ones his first presidential campaign had invoked. This Lincoln—lethal and lost—is an Obama-era dad.

To some degree, the tortured, torturing dads of Munich and Lincoln were overtures to the capstone of Spielberg and Kushner’s dad trilogy, The Fabelmans. Of all the great filmmakers, Spielberg is the one with perhaps the most all-consuming, omnipresent the­matic interest—Dad!—yet it took more than fifty years for him to make a film about his actual father. Burt, played in the film by Paul Dano, is a wan husk of a Ward Cleaver, a man damaged by war, unequal to his luminous wife, actively discouraging of his son’s artistic ambitions, and socially inept without the comic charisma of an eighties sitcom dad.

Burt is not bumbling, but neither is he strong. He is a cuck­old, a man whose willing forfeiture of masculine command is read—by his society, by his son—as betrayal, a thin soul. It is a naked portrayal of both Spielbergs. For the son, perhaps, it was freeing to look the father in the eye, to tell the master plot that has undergirded every film of his career to this point, an ark unveiled in ecstasy. For us, the spectators, it is electrifying, the ghost that haunted our childhood dreams of extraterrestrials and grails finally made manifest before us. Here is the absent father. Here is his damaged child. Here is the great fatherly MacGuffin.

The penultimate scene of The Fabelmans takes place before the estrangement of father and son—here, Burt and Sammy. Sammy is a struggling filmmaker considering dropping out of college to pursue his art full-time, and he is living with his dad. They open an envelope from Sammy’s mother, Burt’s ex-wife. In it, Burt sees a picture of her with his old friend, now her husband, and the soul leaves his body. He, here, is abandoned, and he drifts to the kitchen, away from his son, in sadness and shame. He deliv­ers, then, the equivalent of a Ward Cleaver monologue from this debased position:

If you hate school so much, don’t go. I don’t know, I would like you to because this film thing. . . . I don’t know. Maybe I should have put my foot down about it years ago, but . . . I know you’re gonna work like the dickens on whatever you wind up doing because you’re a chip off the old block.

The words are those of the fifties dad—“put my foot down,” “work like the dickens,” “chip off the old block”—but dismantled, decon­structed. Here is a man weighed down by the mythology that tells him who he should be, including, in an act of cinematic time travel, the mythology his own son would go on to create. He leaves the kitchen and kneels down before his son—our director—and he says, “We’re never not going to know each other, Sammy.” Knowing, as we do, that this moment is a prelude to fifteen years of estrangement, to a career defined by a fissure between these two men, it feels uncanny.

In the following scene, the final one of the film, Sammy meets the legendary director John Ford—a cinematic surrogate father—who gives him advice on his career, who gives him entry to a world of imagination, and who gives him a doorway to us and the world we have lived in that he has helped to create. Sammy will leave his dad behind, and he will find us, and he will tell us stories about what that absence means and the void it creates, and he will fill that space with magic and fantasy and violence. And he will imagine and share a vision of what a father is that we will learn from and live with as he has. We’re never not going to know each other.

Phillip Maciak is the TV critic for The New Republic and author of Avidly Reads Screen Time. He teaches at Washington University.
Originally published:
March 4, 2024


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