Warning: Review Contains Spoilers
The number of film directors that “normies” know by name is pretty low. I could suggest Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick, but I’m not sure how many film illiterate zoomers will know who they are. Alternately I could suggest Christopher Nolan or David Fincher but I’m not sure how well known those guys are by the over-70 crowd. I suppose Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and M. Night Shyamalan have been successful enough at promoting themselves that they qualify as household names, but they’re divisive figures who many people love but many other people love to hate. Then of course there’s Martin Scorsese, but ultimately his audience is a bit limited as well. The one name that so obviously stands out as the truly universally beloved filmmaker is almost certainly Steven Spielberg, a man who accomplished more in the first ten years of his career than most filmmakers manage their entire lives. That having been said, it’s not entirely clear that Spielberg’s grip on the public imagination is what it once used to be, in part because he’s come to focus on making movies for adults during a rather juvenile time box office history. His West Side Story remake last year basically bombed at the box office despite being some of his best work in a while. One can blame the pandemic for that, but still, it’s hard to get around. His smaller dramas like The Post and Bridge of Spies have generally done pretty well for what they are and the one time this decade that he threw up his arms and made an effects vehicle with Ready Player One it was lucrative, but outside of that he hasn’t really had a blockbuster since Lincoln and I’m not sure he’s made something that can truly be called an earth quaking popular game changer since Saving Private Ryan. That having been said, I’m honestly kind of glad that (Ready Player One notwithstanding) Spielberg has followed his muse into mellower places rather than chasing trends and trying to be hip with the youths. And he’s certainly followed that muse into personal territory with his latest film, an autobiographical coming of age film called The Fabelmans.
The Fabelmans is a very lightly fictionalized retelling of Steven Spielberg’s childhood and adolescence. His alter ego is Sam Fabelman (played as a child by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) and the film starts with him being taken to a movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, which leaves him enamored with the idea of trains colliding with things. His father, an engineer named Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano), eventually buys him a toy train set but gets angry when he learns that the boy is crashing these devices so his mother Mitzi Schildkraut-Fabelman (Michelle Williams) suggests that he instead film a single crash on the family 8mm film camera and watch that. This sparks a lifelong fascination with filmmaking in the boy which blooms after the family moves him and his sisters to Arizona and as a teenager (now played by Gabriel LaBelle) he starts making increasingly elaborate amateur films with his boy scout troop. A family friend and co-worker of Burt’s named Bennie Loewy (Seth Rogan) also comes to Phoenix and is ingrained in the family to the point where he’s viewed as an uncle to the kids, and together they all make for a pretty happy family. Things will not remain happy forever though and after Sam’s maternal grandmother dies it leads to a bout of extreme grief in his mother that will result in a series of events that will leave this family wounded in such a way that it could affect Sam and his art for the rest of his life.
While Sam’s movie obsession is seen in several different places there are two specific movies that are highlighted as having influenced Sam early in life. The first is the aforementioned The Greatest Show on Earth, which is certainly a believable film to highlight as an early influence because who would make that up? That movie is lousy, it’s a bloated commercial for the circus that is today considered to be one of the weakest movies to ever con its way into winning a Best Picture Oscar. But watching the clips in the movie you do sort of get how it could have impact as a six year old’s first exposure to cinema, particularly its finale which involved a car derailing a train. That, one could say, appears to be the genesis of Spielberg’s interest in spectacle and action and sparked the early films that made him a household name. The other film highlighted, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is more emblematic of the more conflicted films about American history that Spielberg would make later in his career like Munich, Lincoln, and The Post. Obviously that movie is highlighted because it’s a western that came out in 1962 and which could inspire him to make a western film as one of his projects, but I think it’s here for a bigger reason as well, namely because of its famous last line: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
In many ways The Fabelmans feels like a project that exists to print the legend of Spielberg’s life. Anyone with even a casual knowledge of Spielberg’s work and life story has heard the stories of him growing up as a movie obsessed tyke who used his family’s home video camera to make mini-movies. It’s a concept of his life that’s so widely repeated that it once inspired J.J. Abrams to make a big budget science fiction film called Super 8 about similarly inspired young people making a their own movies with similar technology. The recreation of these no-budget film shoots are, interestingly, the most Spielbergian moments in The Fabelmans and there’s a great deal of fun to be found in the ingenuity of these junior filmmakers and the extent to which Sam seems like a natural at this clear to be seen. One could accuse Spielberg of a certain vanity to all of this and the scale and talent of these movies within the movie would seem to be a bit hard to swallow. However, I’ve seen clips from Spielberg’s actual juvenilia and they’re actually not that far removed from what you see here, it’s legitimately amazing that the teenaged Spielberg in the early 60s was still able to make things that look more like “real” movies than what many people today are able to make despite having every technological advantage.
Of course the other part of the Spielberg legend comes from the fact that he’s said to come from something of a broken family that had been torn apart by divorce and that this gave him“daddy issues” that would be very detectable in his films, which tend to be filled to the brim with absent fathers and a desire for familial reunification. This is where The Fabelmans throws a bit of a wrench into the gears of printing the legend and makes a major change from the narrative we all know. In the film a teenage Sam discovers through some of the home video footage he shot that his mother has been having an affair with his “uncle” Bennie Loewy and builds resentment for her. This affair is factual, but in the 2017 HBO documentary simply titled Spielberg the filmmaker said that he never knew anything about it until well into adulthood leaving him to resent his father because he didn’t understand what led him to leave, so unless he was lying in that documentary this plot development in The Fabelmans would seem to be a divergence both from the facts and the legend. In a way this would seem to be setting up an alternate universe version of Steven Spielberg where events have set him up to have “mommy issues” instead of “daddy issues.” That’s pretty interesting, but it’s also something that the movie doesn’t have much time to actually do anything with. It ends before Spielberg has started his professional film career, and we’re kind of left to imagine what effect this parental figure reversal would have on films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
One does not, however, need to be a Spielberg nut in order to enjoy The Fabelmans as it is simply a very well-constructed coming of age movie. Spielberg did not grow up in a dramatic warzone like Kenneth Branagh or John Boorman and wasn’t a borderline juvenile delinquent like François Truffaut, so he is examining a more privileged adolescence and he isn’t really interrogating that privilege the way Alfonso Cuarón and James Gray did with their recent efforts in autobiography. Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner make up for this by just filling his movie with a lot of wit and relatability. Spielberg has long been something of a master of getting good performances out of child actors and hasn’t lost his touch here and he’s also able to make the rest of the family here seem believable even if the adults here are largely played by movie stars. He’s also able to make some of the angstier moments of the teenage version of himself feel understandable rather than annoying and the film also does a good job of handling some of the antisemitism he experienced while living among the goyim in California and some amusing anecdotes like an early romance Sam has with a girl who keeps trying to convert him to Christianity. And of course it also leads up to a very amusing final scene on the Paramount backlot which I will not spoil here. So, by and large this is a very enjoyable and satisfying movie but I’m going to have to stop short of calling it top tier Spielberg. Partly that’s just because he’s set the bar inanely high for himself but even last year’s West Side Story displayed him in a more adventurous place as a visual stylist and other dramas he’s made like Lincoln and Munich deal with weightier topics. But let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth, Spielberg is bearing his soul to the film going populace and that’s not something you get every day.
**** out of Five