American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Sometimes there are movies that strike you in a certain way, that haunt your memory and provide some of the terms with which you view your own life. For Steven Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss, "A Guy Named Joe" must have been a movie like that. Released in 1944, it starred Spencer Tracy as a pilot who dies in combat and is assigned by heaven to return to earth to inspire the younger pilot (Van Johnson) who will take his place. The kicker is that Tracy also has to stand by helplessly and watch while Johnson falls in love with Tracy's girlfriend (Irene Dunne).
Dreyfuss says he has seen "A Guy Named Joe" at least 35 times.
Spielberg watched it again and again on the late show when he was a kid, and it was one of the films that inspired him to become a movie director. When Spielberg and Dreyfuss were making "Jaws" in 1974, they quoted individual shots from the movie to each other - and finally, in 1989, they got to make it themselves. The remake is called "Always," and it takes place now instead of then and the pilots are fighting forest fires instead of enemy planes, but the basic ideas are all still in place. They do not, unfortunately, add up to much; this is Spielberg's weakest film since "1941." Dreyfuss stars as a guy named Pete, who fights fires in the Pacific Northwest and spends his off-duty hours romancing a cute forest service air traffic controller (Holly Hunter). Pete is a guy who likes to take chances, and there are cliff-hanging scenes early in the movie where he runs out of gas and glides to a landing and when he nearly crashes into a blazing forest fire. His best pal is a pilot named Al (John Goodman), who also likes to take chances and crashes into some burning trees one day, setting his plane on fire. Pete the daredevil goes into a dive and puts out the fire on Goodman's plane by dumping chemicals all over it, but then Pete's plane crashes and he wakes up in a heavenly forest grove presided over by an angel (Audrey Hepburn).
That sets up the second act of the movie, in which poor Pete has to come back to earth and be an invisible inspiration for the youngster (Brad Johnson) who has replaced him. And he has to watch, impotently, as the kid and Pete's former girl fall in love. There is a lot of pathos to be exploited here somewhere, but I didn't feel much.