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“We Named the Dog Indiana:” Steven Spielberg’s Best Films About Daddy Issues

"For never letting me blow bubbles in my chocolate milk!"

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and Sean Connery as Henry Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

If there’s one theme legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg returns to again and again, it’s family. Particularly the tension between sons and their parents. As a child of divorce, Spielberg often used his films to try and make meaning out of the pain caused by his parents’ split, particularly the anger and abandonment caused by his father’s leaving.

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Later in his career, after becoming a father himself, his take on fatherhood would pivot. Instead of examining absent fathers, he would tell stories in which fathers would do anything to keep their families together. In War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise’s Ray fights to protect his family. In Minority Report, Tom Cruise (again) is a man deeply scarred by the death of his son. Even in Lincoln the presidential biopic, we see Lincoln the father trying to protect his son by preventing him from going to war – a decision that his son is angered by and can not understand.

In his new film, (set for wide release on Nov 23), The Fabelmans, Spielberg creates an explicitly autobiographical drama about the unraveling of a marriage and the children caught in the crossfire. The coming-of-age film, in which a young boy discovers his passion for filmmaking in the midst of his parents’ struggles, is both touching and poignant. It also, for the first time, looks at the culpability of his mother (played by Michelle Williams in a truly astonishing performance). It was her extramarital affair (along with their diametrically opposed natures) that led to his parents’ divorce. The film is both a love letter to filmmaking and an act of forgiveness to his parents. Much like in real life, when he reconnected and patched things up with his father, The Fabelmans is his way of accepting and forgiving his mother.

Difficult parents, and learning to accept them (whether that means reuniting after an estrangement or deciding it is best to cut ties permanently) is a near-universal experience! Parents are flawed, fallible humans, just like us. So while we impatiently await the release of The Fabelmans, let’s take a look back at Spielberg’s best “bad dad” (or sometimes “absent dad”) classics! 

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Spielberg’s third feature film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a classic science-fiction adventure. Roy, (Richard Dreyfuss), has an encounter with visiting extra-terrestrials and is so profoundly shaken by the experience that he becomes a man possessed. He has to find them again and learn more about them. However, his obsession and single-mindedness, cause him to abandon his wife and three children without a second thought. As in, at the end of the film he literally gets on an alien spaceship and leaves the planet, never to return. Sorry kids!

E.T. the Extra-terrestrial (1982)

One of Spielberg’s all-time greats, E.T. tells the story of Elliott, a lonely young boy who forms a close, empathic bond with a lost alien and their fight to get the alien back to its family. Elliott’s dad has left the family and it is this void that allows Elliott to form a bond with E.T. Both Elliott and E.T. feel abandoned but are able to find solace and healing in each other. Spielberg even stated that the film was inspired by the imaginary friend Spielberg created after his father left. 

 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

In the third installment of Spielberg’s classic adventure series, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) faces his most difficult challenge yet: finding his father (Sean Connery). Henry Jones, also an archeologist, is a man so obsessed and dedicated to his work (much like Spielberg’s own father) that Indy feels distant from him, even when he isn’t literally lost – or in this case, kidnapped by Nazis. It is, however, the first of his films in which the son and the absent father come together and attempt to work through their difficulties… and kick some Nazi ass!

Hook (1991)

This nineties kid classic posits two important questions: what if Peter Pan grew up and if he did, what kind of dad would he be? The answers according to Spielberg are: he would become a boring, work-obsessed adult, and a pretty bad dad! In Hook, Peter is a man so focused on his job that his marriage is failing and his son hates him. It isn’t until Captain Hook kidnaps his children and takes them to Neverland that Peter learns he must let go of his ego and inhibitions in order to get back in touch with his imagination and save his children. By reconnecting with Tinkerbell and bonding with the Lost Boys he is able to face his past demons (well, pirates) and reunite his family.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Originally a short story by Brian Aldiss titled “Supertoys Last All Summer Long” and first developed by Stanely Kubrick, A.I. tells the story of David (Haley Joel Osment), an android child who wants a parent’s love. Spielberg took over the project from Kubrick and wrote his own adaptation with screenwriter Ian Watson. Which of course means that daddy (and mommy) issues abound! David is purchased by a young couple as a replacement son when they think their biological son is about to die from a serious illness. When their real son recovers, David is abandoned in the woods. David then sets out on a journey to find his maker, determined to become a real boy and regain his mother’s love. In the film, the father (Sam Robards) is never able to emotionally connect with David, and David’s subsequent abandonment further continues Speilberg’s father themes while also beginning to introduce his mommy issues as well. 

And there you have it! Five iconic films, five pinnacles of their genres, five glimpses into a child of divorce’s psyche, and five movies to tide us over until we can all watch The Fabelmans with our own families over Thanksgiving weekend. Happy Fabelsmangiving!

(Image: Paramount)

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Brittany Knupper
Brittany is a lifelong Californian (it's a big state, she can't find her way out!) who currently resides in sunny Los Angeles with her gigantic, vaguely cat-shaped companion Gus. If you stumble upon her she might begin proselytizing about Survivor, but give her an iced coffee and she will calm down.

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