We are mesmerized by movies about the magic of the movies. And if the helmer of one such film is Steven Spielberg, we run, not walk to watch the resulting oeuvre.
With The Fabelmans, the filmmaker of such all around undisputed classic hits as E.T., Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and Close Encounters of the Third Kind gives us an unquestionable insight into the legend behind the genius. Spielberg’s legend, the story of his childhood, and what molded him into a cinematic genius. The film also proves a code breaker for much of the American filmmaker's work, decoding characters and themes that appear in most of Spielberg's movies.
In one fantastic review I confess having read before sitting down to pen mine, the writer hints at how human it is “to turn an everyday anecdote into a myth.” It is what Spielberg always does best, add his own magic to stories we believe we already know. Once we watch his telling, or retelling, we of course change our minds, and realize we went into the film knowing little, or nothing at all.
This is the case with The Fabelmans, which as the title suggests, is a fictional, fantasized reworking of Spielberg’s own early life, with more than its share of myths and legends, but also painfully truthful about the crucial parts and what made the little boy fascinated by the movies into the successful filmmaker he is today. It’s a spellbinding film, even if at times it feels so much like a fable, complete with close ups of wide eyed kids and happy ending, that this viewer wished for a more truthful approach.
At the core of the film is young Sammy Fabelman, first played as a tiny tot by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, all wide eyed and sprightly of course, then by Gabriel LaBelle who looks so much like a young Steven Spielberg circa the time the filmmaker started working in television on shows like Columbo and Marcus Welby, M.D., that it is almost eerie to watch him.
But also, central to the story is Sammy/Steven’s mother, Mitzi (played by the instantly likable Michelle Williams) who is clearly the woman behind the genius. Would Spielberg ever have become the successful filmmaker he is without her, and without her odd, manic adventures and artistic sense? Probably not, we find ourselves answering while watching The Fabelmans.
On the other side of Mitzi is Burt, Sammy computer engineer father, played by the ever watchable Paul Dano. He brings a melancholic, quiet mood to the character and while Mitzi is the firecracker that lights up the screen, Burt is the reality of life that makes the story come home for us. "In this family, it's the scientists vs. the artists, Sammy's on my team, takes after me," as Mitzi says.
The film opens as the Fabelmans sit at the movies as a family, watching Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, which was touted at the time as family entertainment. The film’s climactic scene is a horrific train crash which, instead of traumatizing him then fuels young Sammy’s imagination and has him asking for a train set as a gift. This is so he can re-enact the crash and begin working through his first inspiration as a future film maker. It is fascinating to watch Mitzi applaud her son and Burt scold him, because we finally realize where the "formula" — and I don’t mean this in a negative way but with the utmost admiration — for a lot of Spielberg’s stories comes from. This constant battle of two opposing forces is central to most of the filmmaker's work.
We then follow the family as Sammy grows up, and we begin to realize that most of Burt’s efforts to keep the artistic Mitzi happy are going to be futile. She has found her laughter in family friend Bennie (played by Seth Rogen) and we are given hints of things to come between the two early on in the story. Mitzi is a pianist, who insists on playing the piano with her long, red lacquered nails tapping on the keys and who chases tornadoes with her terrorized kids riding in her car.
Mitzi is the story, the legend of Spielberg’s stories and the magic of the movies all rolled into one.
Burt’s kindness instead reminds me of that quote from The Third Man which Orson Welles as Harry Lime famously utters about cuckoo clocks: "In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace. And what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Burt may be what keeps the family together but he doesn’t stand a chance against Mitzi's eccentricity and fun-to-watch unraveling.
And just when you think the story is going to turn sappy and sentimental, there is a jolt of undeniable casting genius that brings to The Fabelmans the perfect touch to end it on a high note. Watch out for the David Lynch cameo and what he says about horizons to the awestruck Sammy is all I can say and, like me, you’ll have found your perfect ending for a Steven Spielberg film — the film of his lifetime.
USA, 151 minutes, 2022
Dir: Steven Spielberg
Writ: Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner
Prod: Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, Kristie Macosko Krieger
Exec prod: Josh McLaglen, Carla Raij
Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski
Editor: Sarah Broshar, Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams
Starring Michelle Williams, Gabriel LaBelle, Paul Dano, Judd Hirsch, Seth Rogen