Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Written by Patrick Hao
Throughout Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” there are often allusions to John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” Not only is the film and its filmmaker, Ford (as the movie will depict), an immense influence on Spielberg, but its central theme may be the skeleton key to what Spielberg is hoping to achieve with what has been described as his most personal film to date. The most famous line from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” of course is, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” “The Fabelmans” is a way for Spielberg, using the very medium he has excelled at for five decades, to establish his family and his origins. But, not merely about establishing the story on record. Both in “Liberty Valance” and “The Fabelmans,” there is a profound sense of necessity when it comes to art. It can vaunt people to superheroic status or it can reveal deeply hidden truths that even the subject could not discern.
Spielberg has been unfairly criticized throughout his career as being a trickly over sentimental filmmaker. Most of this criticism comes from the fact that his film brat contemporaries, Scorsese, De Palma, and Coppola, seemed decidedly more cynical and counterculture than Spielberg. But, the melancholy undercurrent of his films, including “The Fabelmans,” cannot be denied. This film is unlike many of the titles that fit into the niche subgenre of great filmmakers’ memoirs of how they fell in love with movies. There are immense complications that take 77 years of hindsight and a Tony Award winning playwright, Tony Kushner, to pull out, and even then it does not seem like all the threads of Spielberg’s psyche have been fully teased.
Even the way that Speilberg presents the origins of his stand-in, Sammy Fabelman’s (the young version is played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-Deford), preoccupation with movies feels different than others. We get that cliche face illuminated by the cinema when the Fabelmans watch “The Greatest Show on Earth” in the opening scenes of the film. But, Sammy’s preoccupation is driven by fear and control, not by the love of cinema. He is terrified of the train sequence in that film, and the only way to exorcise those feelings is by recreating it on camera. This becomes the theme of young Sammy’s life as he tries to tightly control his sets to create narratives, most of the time to entertain.
The rest of the film is an episodic exploration of the Fabelmans, a middle-class Jewish family in the 1950s and 1960s. The heads of household have love for each other but seem to be complete opposites in many respects. Mitzi (Michelle Williams) had artistic ambitions of being a great pianist and is ill-suited for the strictures of being a stay-at-home homemaker. On the other end of the spectrum is Sammy’s father, Burt (Paul Dano). He is an engineer on the forefront of computer development. Mitzi’s artistic ambitions and Burt’s analytical mind is passed on to young Sammy, as he begins to explore moviemaking, staging scenes, and making shorts with the technical skill of a savant.
The home that Spielberg recreates, especially in the early years of the Fabelmans, is one tinged with great nostalgia, especially when paired with Janusz Kaminski’s signature warm hue. The family life depicted is dynamic. The younger Fabelman sisters are precocious and cute, the willing participants in Sammy’s flights of fancy. Jeanie Berlin and Robin Bartlett bring great specificity to their roles as Sammy’s two grandmothers and Seth Rogen gives a grounded performance as Bennie, a friend of the family, who is said to be best friends with Burt, but whose real utility seems to be making Mitzi laugh.
If you know the Speilberg mythos, you know what happens to the relationship between Mitzi, Burt, and Bennie. This dynamic is never shied away from, no matter how unflattering a depiction it becomes. When the Fabelmans have to move to Arizona because Burt got a new job, Mitzi and the family plead with him to convince his employer to employ Bennie so he can come along. Teenage Sammy (Gabrielle LaBelle) can feel these tensions as he tries to balance his filmmaking ambitions and the tricky interpersonal dynamics. While love is still there between the family, something is obviously amiss.
Spielberg uncannily jumps between these episodes, exposing character with every little turn. It is the contrast of Dano’s quiet reserve against Williams’ manic exuberance that really makes the film shine. Burt is not a dumb man. In fact, he is an observant man and his silences speak loudly, creating a simmering kettle effect. Williams is more of a boiling tea kettle with water spewing violently at the spout. Domesticity cannot keep her boil at bay. As an audience member, it’s hard not to develop a deep sympathy for the two.
The commonality between all the Fabelmans is how to achieve true happiness. Sure there is love. But, unfortunately, love does not always bring happiness. This sentiment is why the sentimentality criticism of Spielberg’s oeuvre seems so misplaced. Even in Speilberg’s self-mythology, he employs a Joseph Cambell-esque call-to-action that plays more like horror than it does inspirational, when Sammy’s estranged uncle (Judd Hirsch) comes to visit for a bravura one-scene performance. Spielberg’s view of an artist is decidedly one of more pain than it is an inspirational calling.
The final third of the movie takes place in California where the Fabelmans move, this time without Bennie. It is here where Sammy really becomes the driver of the story, and it allows Spielberg to make his first high school movie. Amongst the relationship dynamics of anti-semitism and first love in high school, at home, the family is deeply fractured beyond repair. It is in this segment that these seemingly disparate episodes really begin coming together for a harmonious whole, buoyed by good performances from Sam Rechner as a blonde-haired bully and Chloe East as Sammy’s first love. This act might even have one of the best scenes in all of Spielberg’s filmography.
Throughout, Sammy is shown to wield the camera as a superpower, which at times is unwanted. Sammy, and by that account, Spielberg becomes the myth and legend maker. This is a great burden that Sammy in the film has not fully grasped. But it is Spielberg’s great fortune that he is able to write the legend of his story, no matter how “fictionalized.” Yet, among all the self-mythologizing, this tension between finding love and finding happiness and the emptiness in between is ever present in Spielberg’s greatest works. This is left unresolved in “The Fabelmans,” of course because even in 77 years of hindsight, there will never be full answers.
“The Fabelmans” Trailer