Spielberg delivers one of his most personal, poignant films
In The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s (West Side Story, Bridge of Spies, Lincoln) semi-autobiographical portrait of a filmmaker as a young man, Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), Spielberg’s semi-fictional analogue, ventures into the cavernous dark of of a New Jersey movie theater to watch Cecil B. DeMille’s Oscar winner, The Greatest Show on Earth, in 1952 with his parents, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano). Hesitant, bordering on the anxious and fretful, Sammy has to coaxed into entering the theater, but once he does, he’s not only engrossed by the gigantic moving pictures, but enraptured as well, carried on a wave of sound and vision into another world, a world shaped by desire, ambition, and for the proto-Spielberg, dreams as well.
One particular scene involving a horrific train crash in the film becomes an obsession for young Sammy and for the audience on the other side of the screen, the scene becomes a foundational experience from which everything we leaned and eventually know about Sammy during The Fabelmans becomes refracted. The onscreen train wreck becomes not only something to captivate or fear Sammy, but something Sammy must learn to duplicate through the expensive train set gifted to him by his loving father, his father’s borrowed movie camera, and his mother’s deliberate encouragement.
In Sammy, Mitzi, a onetime aspiring concert pianist turned dutiful wife and mother in ’50s suburbia, sees a kindred spirit, a burgeoning artist. Burt, a skillful engineer and computer scientist, sees Sammy’s growing obsession with filmmaking as nothing more than a youthful fancy, a hobby Sammy will shake off as adulthood approaches. That conflict, between art and practicality, between risk and security, embodied by Mitzi and Burt as diametrical opposites and in Sammy, the possibility of synthesis, a combination or even marriage of their respective worldviews and their individual talents.
Even as Sammy, like his offscreen counterpart behind the camera, repeatedly chooses art and filmmaking, stopping along the way for pep talks about art, family, and sacrifice from his great-uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch in a scene-stealing cameo) and the longtime family friend, “Uncle” Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogen), Mitzi and Burt’s marriage begins slowly unraveling over a decade that takes Sammy and his family (and Bennie) from the wilds of New Jersey to the arid desert of Phoenix, Arizona and eventually, Northern California. A new, better job for Burt accompanies the decision to move each time. Each time they uproot their lives, however, Mitzi grows unhappier with her constricting role as wife and mother.
Working from a screenplay co-written with Pulitzer Prize winner and longtime collaborator Tony Kushner (Lincoln, Munich, Angels in America), Spielberg consciously avoids turning Burt or Mitzi into villains. They’re both right and both, in their own ways, wrong, Mitzi because putting her personal happiness first and her family second opens her to accusations of selfishness and Burt because his seemingly impenetrable scientific, practical demeanor makes him a difficult life partner. That doesn’t mean Burt’s cold or unemotional, only that like Mitzi, Burt can’t escape, let alone overcome, the realities and expectations of the time (a patriarchal structure with clearly defined gender roles).
Throughout, Sammy watches the slow-motion disintegration of his parents marriage, often with a camera in hand, never with anger, at least not until the raw footage from a family camping trip reveals clear, irrefutable evidence of that disintegration. In making increasingly ambitious shorts with his family and friends (a Western first, a World War II film later, the influences on Spielberg’s later efforts in Hollywood obvious), Sammy learns the craft of filmmaking, but like that first onscreen train wreck that overwhelms his imagination, turning the uncut footage of a camping trip into a loving, affectionate homage to his family, specifically his mother, teaches him the power of fiction — or rather fictionalizing raw experience — to rewrite the past and thus shape the present in the service of an ideal (i.e., the perfect nuclear family).
That lesson helps Sammy in The Fabelmans’s last section in Northern California. Pulled from the comforts and security of his life in Arizona, Sammy has to navigate senior year in a WASPy high school where Jewish people aren’t just a rarity or minority, but the object of scorn, contempt, and bullying. The swerve towards overt antisemitism feels sudden, not least because Spielberg and Kushner decidedly keep Sammy and his family’s Jewishness in the background, present, but rarely, if ever addressed (a Hanukkah scene and Uncle Boris’s visit aside). While those wrenching scenes are meant to be true to Spielberg’s life experiences, that doesn’t make them feel any less abrupt.
For Sammy, though, each life lesson builds on the last. Antisemitism becomes one more problem for him to overcome, if not through his singular brilliance or quick wittedness, then through his talents as a filmmaker. Having learned the inherent powers of manipulation filmmaking contains, Sammy smartly uses a seemingly throwaway opportunity to film a high-school event to his personal advantage, gaining him a level of acceptance that’s eluded him over the better part of a school year. Sammy even gains a non-Jewish, Jesus-obsessed girlfriend, Monica Sherwood (Chloe East), while picking up another life lesson or two on the way to becoming one of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers, an unparalleled craftsman and an artist without equal.
Given the tropes typical of a coming-of-age tale, it’s not surprising that The Fabelmans slips into episodic mode driven less by Sammy’s personal journey into adulthood than a family’s eventual, decade-long dissolution. It’s arguably strongest when it focuses on Mitzi and Burt’s complex, complicated resolution and weakest when it centers exclusively on Sammy and his specific, if oddly generic, experiences. And while it’s relatively easy to imagine The Fabelmans’s not as a 2.5-hour film, but as a prestige series for high-end cable or streaming, the result, one of Spielberg’s most personal films, remains a must-watch for Spielberg completists (i.e., everyone).
The Fabelmans opened theatrically in North America on Wednesday, November 23rd.