Peter Bart: Upcoming Spielberg, Mendes & Gray Movies Could Teach Newly Troubled Tech Titans Some Old Tricks

Three rite-of-passage movies are vying for attention this week at a moment when the rewards of maturity seem to be offering more gratification than the agonies of youth.

Steven Spielberg, Sam Mendes and James Gray have delivered candid and poignant coming-of-age dramas dealing with broken marriages, mental health traumas and unwitting encounters with racial inequities, respectively.

Each is a survival story: A key element of the healing process was the influence of movies – a welcome message at a time when movies are enduring a rite of passage of their own.

The films’ timing carries a certain cultural irony: With losses and layoffs wreaking headlines in the tech economy, this has been a perilous week for those coping with younger superstars named Musk, Zuckerberg, Bezos and Bankman-Fried.

The many thousands suffering career crises might wonder whether this generation of billionaire moguls ever underwent the probing self-examinations delineated by the filmmakers.

Or, as Sam Bankman-Fried, age 30, put it: “I should have concentrated on what I was doing.” His $32 billion company, FTX, plunged into bankruptcy this week. It’s as though the crypto king was caught wandering through a rite-of-passage movie without securing the rites.

The new class of techno-moguls might do well to review the insightful reflections of Spielberg, Mendes or Gray in analyzing their obstacles – a sort of candor rarely found in the corporate world.

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In The Fabelmans, a young Spielberg learns how to discover truth through his camera, thus overcoming the anger stirred by his parents’ breakup.

“Sixteen is too young to realize that my parents, too, are real people and not to hold that against them,” he concludes. “I learned that I was in control of my films until that moment when I also discovered I had no control over the sort of information that seemed pulverizing for a kid.”

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For Mendes, shooting Empire of Light meant finally confronting his mother’s mental illness, thus enabling him “to get close to the things that obsessed me through all the experience of my adult life.” His hometown movie theater, which he briefly managed, helped him understand the “Cinema Paradiso-like” revelations that ultimately channeled his childhood traumas.

In Armageddon Time, Gray confronts the traumatic implications of his shift from being a public- to a private-school kid – a change triggering his betrayal of his best friend, a Black kid. It became a shocking realization.

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A key message of these movies is the value of confrontation: The poignance of puberty in facing life’s lessons and assimilating them into the behavior of the moment.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk

ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

It’s tempting to speculate how an Elon Musk would react to this genre – the man who, having paid $44 billion for Twitter, laid off half his workforce this month, threatening to fire anyone else criticizing his decisions. Musk’s personal Tesla pay package is worth $55 billion – it’s now being challenged in a Delaware courtroom.

By contrast, how would he react to the benign smile of a Warren Buffett, who this week quietly acquired $9 billion in stock in a recovering market.

Making movies is, of itself, a statement of optimism, Spielberg would argue. “Older people would like to come back to meaningful movies,” he believes. “It’s up to movies to be good enough to prompt people to say, ‘Aren’t you glad we went out tonight?’ ”

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