For nearly half a century Steven Spielberg has been directing motion pictures that the world has embraced. People will call his newest movie The Fabelmans his most personal film and that is an accurate statement. There is only the thinnest veil imaginable with the characters names being changed ever so slightly to disguise the fact that this is the story of a young Steven Spielberg growing up, coming of age, and discovering his love of cinema and making movies. But people may also say that this is one of Spielberg’s best films and despite the fact that he basically invented the modern blockbuster with Jaws (1975) and made Oscar winning epics such as Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), The Fabelmans is at times as emotionally moving as any of those pictures. That is not a hyperbole, it is a testament to his immense talent and his adoration and devotion to filmmaking. Prior to The Fabelmans his most personal work was his blockbuster hit E.T. (1982) about a boy and his extraterrestrial friend growing up in a single parent household in the Sun belt suburbs. That movie was his way of working through his childhood trauma after his parents went through a nasty divorce. The Fabelmans touches on that emotional episode of his youth as well as his discovery for his undying passion of cinema, his isolation being the only Jewish family wherever his father moved them to for his work, and his own search for identity and belonging in world where he often felt as an outcast. These are all themes that he has touched on in previous movies he has directed but with The Fabelmans it feels like he let himself be as self-indulgent as he wanted to and made his most autobiographical movie for his own catharsis. Luckily for the audience Steven Spielberg remains the incredibly gifted filmmaker that he has been for decades and we can all benefit from empathizing with his childhood memories and walk out of the theater smiling on a beautiful shared experience.
It opens up like most Spielberg movies do with just the title over a black screen and then we see an old car on a busy street and the text lets us know we are in New Jersey in 1952. In one long shot the camera pans over and settles on parents played by Paul Dano and Michelle Williams explaining to a young Steven Spielberg, oops I mean Sammy Fabelman, about what to expect as they are about to take him to his first movie in the theater. His father explains it from a technical standpoint about the lights and the projector and how the machines work moving at 24 frames per second that create the moving images he is about to see. His mother takes a different approach and describes the movies as a magical experience that will transport him to a different time and place. In this first long shot, young Spielberg (Sam Fabelman, sorry I did it again) is introduced to the wonder of the cinema and the two different explanations his parents give him are a fitting depiction of their very different personalities and the tug of war he will find himself in as he grows up between the more practical and logical scientific method of knowing how things are made and how they work, versus his artistic side which he clearly inherited from his mother and the dreams that movies would inspire. This clash of viewpoints on the importance of science and art would lead this young boy to eventually channel both of those philosophies into becoming one of the greatest and arguably most successful filmmaker of all time.
The more you know about Steven Spielberg’s life and childhood the less surprises there will be in The Fabelmans. Steven Spielberg was born in Ohio but lived in New Jersey as a young boy before his father moved his family out west every time he got a new job working as an electrical engineer, he was an Eagle Scout, and he started making movies at a very young age. The Fabelmans starts in New Jersey and goes to the up and coming suburbs outside of Phoenix, Arizona and then later they all move to Northern California. Everywhere he went the movie made it a point to emphasize that this family was the only Jewish family around. They were the only ones without Christmas lights, the only ones that celebrated Chanukah, and by the time the main character is in high school he is called a kike and bullied terribly by jocks for being Jewish. The real Steven Spielberg has admitted to struggling with his Jewish identity during his youth. He hated being Jewish for years and it took a long time for him to accept his religion. From looking at his filmography it seems that he has embraced his Judaism and often makes films about the struggles Jewish people have faced like his holocaust epic Schindler’s List which to date is the only Spielberg directed film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, to inserting small moments in films like his Indiana Jones movies, to his World War II combat picture Saving Private Ryan. A lot of his movies could be looked at as Spielberg inserting Jewish vengeance throughout history in places where Jews were mistreated or persecuted. From Indiana Jones played by Harrison Ford, who happens to be part Jewish in real life, punching out Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), to his criminally underrated Best Picture nominee Munich (2005) probably the darkest Spielberg film which tells the story of the Mossad agents who sought revenge against the terrorists behind the massacre of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. None of those movies could have been directed by someone who did not see the world through Jewish eyes and if they were they likely would have been very different movies. Steven Spielberg is clearly very proud of his Jewish heritage but according to The Fabelmans it took him a while to get comfortable with that part of his identity.
The Fabelmans works as a personal story that all audiences can relate to and one of the main reasons why is because of the performances. This may be hard to believe but no actor had ever won an Academy Award for a Steven Spielberg film until Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln (2012) and since then it seems he has directed many Oscar winning or at the very least Oscar nominated performances from his movies like Bridge of Spies (2015), The Post (2017), and West Side Story (2021). He seemed to spend the first several decades making big imaginative spectacles that also had strong emotional cores which made his movies extremely profitable and then he started to grow and focus more on dramatic fare that touches on the same emotions as his big blockbusters but allowed his actors more of a chance to be the focal point. The performances in The Fabelmans are no exception to his recent output. Paul Dano and Michelle Williams are both superb as his parents and we see their marriage struggle through their son’s eyes. Both Paul Dano and Michelle Williams are probably more well known for some of their early roles in the late 90’s and early 2000’s when they were teenagers and in their early twenties but their acting here shows they are both clearly ready and able to take on more mature roles as mothers and fathers with complexities that they can illustrate to audiences. Gabriel LaBelle does a great job carrying a lot of the heavy weight at the heart of the film as Sam Fabelman as we are witnessing the events unfold from his and his cameras point of view. He shows here that after seeing him in The Fabelmans he can probably handle just about any acting challenge thrown his way.
As usual with Spielberg’s films some elements that could have been a surprise are a bit too obvious in The Fabelmans. The camera lingers too long on some shots to make it clear that these shots are going to foreshadow events that will happen. It is not a perfect film but it does generate a perfect amount of empathy that at 151 minutes most viewers will be fully absorbed in this family drama and not feel the need to check their watch. The last scene is easily one of the best five minutes in any motion picture from the last few years and the final shot is a sight gag, but it is so whimsical and perfectly encapsulates everything we just saw it is the only way The Fabelmans could have possibly ended. It illustrates optimism and after all of the difficulties we saw our main character go through we know that he is smiling, his future is bright and Spielberg has delivered another great film where audiences are guaranteed to walk out smiling and feeling better about their future.
Leave a Reply