Steven Spielberg directs a portrait of a filmmaker as a young man
Unarguably one of the greatest living filmmakers in or out of the English language, Steven Spielberg’s success, both critically and commercially, remain without equal. Even as his directorial career has moved further away from the early career blockbusters (e.g., Jaws, Close Encounters of the Lost Ark, E.T.) for more traditional, history-themed dramas (Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, The Post), success has continued to follow. Though Spielberg has avoided making films that could be characterized as purely personal or semi-autobiographical, academia and the critical study of themes, approaches, and styles haven’t been far behind.
His latest film, The Fabelmans, has already proved a deep source for Spielberg super-fans, film studies professors, and critics to explore, examine, and otherwise psychoanalyze Spielberg and the central family in The Fabelmans. Not so loosely based on Spielberg’s own — with, as expected the usual and maybe even the unusual dramatic license taken to square the messiness of daily life and personal relationships into a two-plus-hour film — The Fabelmans stands on its own as a portrait of a filmmaker as a young man and the decades-long dissolution of an unhappy marriage floundering under the pressures of regressive, repressive gender roles (she’s a former pianist turned homemaker, he’s a computer engineer and breadwinner), familial expectations, and the consumerism inherent in the American Dream (and the pursuit thereof).
The Fabelmans opens in 1952 New Jersey as a preteen Sammie Fabelman (Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord), accompanies his parents, Mitzi and Burt (Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, respectively), to a movie palace in the middle of winter. The film they watch, The Greatest Show on Earth, a circus-centered melodrama heavy on spectacle, went on to win that year’s Academy Award for Best Film. Whether The Greatest Show on Earth deserved that particular accolade is neither here nor there (it’s not on anyone’s list of best Oscar winners), but the world-upending effect it has on young Sammie. Transfixed, then obsessed with the depiction of a train crash onscreen, Sammie all but begs his parents for a Lionel train set for Hanukkah.
Rather, though, than simply play with his new train set, Sammie recreates the train crash, borrowing his father’s camera to shoot his own, personal version. And thus, we’re expected to assume, a young filmmaker has been born, though it’s just as clear that Sammie’s obsession with the crash, a moment of shock, fear, and pleasure, and the recreations that follow are all imitative. Originality would come much, much later. A teenage Sammie (Gabriel LaBelle) contents himself with choreographing, directing, and editing full-scale homages to the American Western and the war film (World War II edition) with his family, friends, and acquaintances. It’s not until his father, desperately hoping to keep his mother intact, pleads with Sammie to edit the raw footage of a family camping trip into a “false” narrative, one centered on a perfectly happy American family.
Sammie knows better, though like Burt, he attempts to deny what his camera clearly captured during the camping trip, a moment of intimacy between Mitzi and “uncle” Bennie (Seth Rogen), a longtime family friend not-so-secretly in love with Mitzi. As Sammie attempts to adjust to a new reality of messy adult relationships and the eventual end of his parents’ marriage, The Fabelmans shifts focus to a teenage Sammie, dropped unceremoniously into a Northern California high school for his senior year, facing the virulent scourge of antisemitism, singled out for his otherness, and made miserable.
Those scenes, based on Spielberg’s personal experiences can feel jarring, especially as the Fabelmans’s Jewishness has remained a background fact of life for the family (i.e, celebrations of Hanukkah and Passover, the visit of an uncle from the old country, etc.), but it also serves a purpose, an essential element of Sammie’s coming-of-age, his renewed interest in becoming a filmmaker, even a Jewish-Christian romance that leads, just as inevitably, into minor heartbreak for Sammie before the eventual end of high school, a move to Southern California, and a fateful meeting with a declining John Ford (David Lynch).
The most poignant moments in The Fabelmans, however, are saved for Sammie’s interactions with his parents, showing Mitzi the unedited footage of the camping trip in his closet, watching, then interacting with his family (a switch between “real” and “reel” life) as his parents relationship disintegrates, and in the second-to-last scene where Sammie, reconciled to his father and his father’s actions, not only connects with him, but displays a level of profound empathy otherwise absent from the younger, immature Sammie. In that, we’ve seen, Sammie has integrated the best parts of his parents, his mother’s artistic impulses and emotional intelligence, his father’s technical wizardry and intellectual curiosity.
The Fabelmans: A Personal Journey — Steven Spielberg reflects on how The Fabelmans is inspired by his own personal story and family.
Family Dynamics — Discover how the film’s cast brought The Fabelmans to live as Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, and Gabriel LaBelle (and more) build a bridge between their onscreen personalities and their true-life counterparts.
Crafting the World of The Fabelmans — From costume and set design to music and choreography, the filmmakers behind The Fabelmans reveal how they created movie magic while capturing the film’s unique look.
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