Released 2022. Director: Steven Spielberg
HOW DID STEVEN SPIELBERG, ONE OF THE MOST SUCCESSFUL DIRECTORS, first become interested in the movies? What were his first steps into filmmaking? Stories of Spielberg's passion for making movies from an early age are well known, having been told in interviews and books over the years. Now, the 76-year-old master who gave us Jaws, E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler's List, Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, War of the Worlds, Minority Report, Munich, the Indiana Jones movies and many others, is putting the Spielberg origin story on film in a loosely fictionalised biography. A legend of the industry looks back at how it all began for himself.
The Fabelmans is primarily a family drama that centres on a boy and his relationship with his parents. Spielberg’s alter ego is named Sam, who is introduced to the magic of the movies when his parents take him to see The Greatest Show on Earth by Cecil B. DeMille. The six-year-old is transfixed by the moving image on the big screen. A trip to the cinema has turned into a decisive moment that will lead to a lifelong career.
Using his dad’s 8mm camera, Sam recreates the train crash sequence from the movie he's just seen using his toy set. His mum Mitzi is his first audience, a source of encouragement through the years as Sam's interest turns into a passion. Although dad is reluctant to lend unequivocal support for what he deems as just a hobby, and would prefer his son to focus on some other practical skills, he realises over time Sam's obsession in filmmaking is not a passing fancy, and buys his son an editing machine. It’s rather clear Spielberg attributes his talent come from his engineer dad and pianist mum.
Throughout his teenage years Sam would make short films, never lack of enthusiastic friends to play actors, and appreciative audiences at school. He learns to tell stories with his camera, a skill he'll find just as vital when dealing with the truth through a lens. After a family camping trip, Sam finds out as he's editing the footage his mother has feelings for his dad's best friend, Uncle Bennie.
This very personal revelation in Spielberg’s life as told in The Fabelmans is indicative of thematic motifs in some of his major movies, particularly in the earlier stage of his career. The imprints of his own experiences go back a long way, including recurring ideas of childlike wonder, the American suburbia and broken families.
We also see how teenage Sam uses filmmaking not just for making movies, but a way to control perspective. By recreating the train crash scene in The Greatest Show on Earth, the young boy learns how to face a scary situation. His edit of the camping trip is his way to shape the family’s memory of the experience, minus what he discovers about mum and Uncle Bennie. His own “director’s cut” is a secret he shares with his mum, a painful admission that the family is slowly falling apart.
Later in a new high school, Sam has a chance of getting even with anti-Semitic bullies who make his life miserable. Yet he chooses to make them look good in the school excursion movie he shoots, which is shown to everyone on prom night. He could have taken revenge and made the bullies look dumb, but Sam decides to be kind instead, and in so doing, changes how the tormentors see their victim, and themselves.
I think this is perhaps the biggest take from the movie. Not the personal biography, not the separation of the family, but how Spielberg learned from an early age, before he became a professional, how movies can change the way people see, think, feel and remember. Indeed, a really skilled filmmaker has the ability not only to entertain, but to enlighten, persuade, influence, even brainwash.
As a director Spielberg is sometimes described as emotionally manipulative with his movies. He’s a master of the form with an innate appreciation for the power of the medium in this regard. Few directors working today have such a natural feel to elicit the emotional response he's after, whether you think it’s a good thing or not.
The issue I have with The Fabelmans is Spielberg telling two connected parts of his younger days and ending up with neither part being strong enough to do justice to his evident devotion to sharing his early history. For a son to reenact the disintegration of his parents' marriage is tough and it shows. This difficult situation, a turning point in Spielberg’s life which leaves an indelible mark on him as a person and a filmmaker, is presented without nuance and is not afforded a deeper treatment it deserves. His journey as a budding filmmaker becomes repetitive without showing us other aspects of his education, his influences and his inspirations. As if picking up a camera and splicing footage is all there is.
Gabriel LaBelle gives an endearing portrayal of the blossoming filmmaker, his enthusiasm is almost infectious and his struggle with his parents’ breakup is heartfelt. Playing the matriarch Mitzi, Michelle Williams is the force that binds the moving parts together, an exuberant woman and an unfulfilled artist whose love for her son, and everyone else, is so clearly what sustains them. Paul Dano is not given enough moments to reveal what's beneath this mild-mannered and subdued husband/father. On the other hand, Judd Hirsch, as distant relative Uncle Boris, has one big scene dispensing ominous wisdom screaming, “Art will tear you apart!”
When a man is caught up in his own reverie it seems rude to interrupt, even though it's coming to two-and-a-half hours. Then again, the movie is a gift from an iconic director to share with movie lovers, fans of the art and medium that have been his lifeblood for all his life.
Knowing that the movie is based on Spielberg’s own experiences gives the movie an added layer of interest to an otherwise unexceptional family drama. The Fabelmans is earnest and generous in spirit, though missing a certain signature magic that Spielberg is so fond of (and masterful at) delivering. The choice of ending the movie with legendary director John Ford giving the aspirant kid on the movie lot a quick lesson, however, is truly an inspired touch. The final shot acknowledging the simple insight is a self-aware and appreciative nod, a reflection of Spielberg’s gratitude and humility.
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