Steven Spielberg slipped into our collective consciousness more than 50 years ago. With a sweeping imagination and spot-on storytelling ability, he has, in film after film, outperformed even the most imposing expectations. And good for all of us that The Fabelmans is no exception.
In this, his 33rd theatrical release, the director tips his hand by exposing highly personal, seminal moments that have informed his artistic choices on topics like family, fairness, and core values; ideas that have taken center stage in our contemporary social discourse.
Along with writing partner Tony Kushner (West Side Story, Angels in America), Spielberg provides immediate access to his family’s big heart and cozy charm.
The Fabelmans are a crafty, intellectually-gifted lot, with a penchant for self-expression and a drive toward lofty goals. They might be the only Jewish family living on a street filled with Christmas lights, but the glow of these particular familial bonds convince us there’s enough light to illuminate dreams.
Gabrielle Labelle (The Predator, Dead Shack), captures the essence of the young director in his portrayal of would-be genius, Sam Fabelman. Somewhat naïve, but sporting a hefty dose of street smarts, Sam leads with his heart. It’s a glorious thing to watch uninhibited young talent. At this point, he is the sole author of his trajectory. But there are forces that will try to keep him earthbound.
His father, Burt, an engineer attempting to fulfill his own career ambitions, downcasts his son’s preoccupation with film as a frivolous hobby. Deftly played by Paul Dano (The Batman, Twelve Years a Slave), Burt continuously bumps up against the walls of other people’s dreams.
Dealing with the burgeoning career of his wife, Mitzi, as a solo classical pianist, he stops just short of outright defiance against her dreams, yet tosses damp blankets over her beguiling childlike enthusiasm. The success pie seems to feel smaller for Burt when shared with the achievements of those he ostensibly loves.
Michelle Williams (Verdon/Fosse, Manchester by the Sea) shows us a restrained Mitzi, until the threads of her sanity peel away from the emotional weight of suppression and the constant accommodation of everyone else’s wishes at the expense of her own.
During a particularly harrowing stretch which tests the strength of her relationship with Sam, the defeated Mitzi empathically advises her son to save himself. “Do what your heart says,” she tells him, “So you don’t owe anyone your life.”
The dishevelment that heaps itself upon the family begins to play itself out as a result of Mitzi’s affair with her husband’s best friend, Bennie. Sam discovers the infidelity while editing film taken at a family outing. His camera has inadvertently captured the two adults sharing blissful, hand-in-hand moments together. Moments thought to be private.
One can feel palpable relief for the emotionally squashed Mitzi, yet she will soon learn that her happiness comes at the expense of her son’s painful separation from boyhood.
It’s a profound rite of passage when circumstance causes children to redefine their parents as faulted and fallible adults. For Spielberg, it became a gateway experience that let loose a river of emotional intelligence, ultimately forming the backbone of his most beloved films.
The film is most buoyant when Spielberg’s native creativity transcends the issues of his youth. Life experiences that found their way – almost whole-cloth – into soaring scenes in films like ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
For instance, that unforgettable moment of cinematic history when boys on bicycles, shepherding ET out of harm’s way, take to the sky, crossing in shadow in front of a full moon. In scenes like this we realize just how long Spielberg has occupied a safe space in our lives.
A chance meeting offers a sublime punctuation at the end of The Fabelmans. Spielberg finds himself in front of legendary filmmaker John Ford. The cranky director instructs him to look at two posters containing men on horseback beneath a big western sky.
He challenges Spielberg to identify the horizon’s location in each picture – that place between earth and sky that both anchors and divides a photograph. Following a few cringe-worthy answers, his accurate responses receive this admonishment from Ford: “Remember this. When the horizon is at the bottom, it’s interesting. When the horizon is at the top, it’s interesting. When the horizon is at the middle, it’s boring as s@#t.”
Ford, the master, advising Spielberg, the student, on the critical importance of point of view, arguably the key ingredient for any successful storytelling endeavor. It’s a solid gold moment. We leave The Fabelmans at this juncture, with a jubilant Sam jaunting away from the camera, Charlie Chaplin-style, into the metaphorical sunset of a great Hollywood sky. Classic Spielberg.
Are you a fan of Steven Spielberg? Which of his films is your favorite? When was the last time you watched a Spielberg movie, and what was the title? What did you think of it?