A father crouches down before his young son outside of a movie theatre. The year is 1952, and a young Jewish boy is about to see his first movie. It’s The Greatest Show on Earth, a Cecil B. DeMille joint about the circus. The boy is frightened of the dark, nervous to enter this room with no lights that will immerse him in fiction. His father, all left-brain focus, walks him through how a projector works to explain that a movie is simply twenty-four frames per second that are run before a very bright projector bulb to make a moving image. His mother, the family artist that never got to shine, takes the young man’s face in her hands and tells him that movies are dreams.
They are both right, but this simple difference in how to take a young boy to the movies will be the beginning of the divorce that changed the landscape of American pop culture. Do you think I’m kidding? Fine, you rewatch E.T.: The Extraterrestrial or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, remember the way they’ve permeated everything that is “America,” and tell me I’m wrong.
It’s both odd and yet wholly fitting that Steven Spielberg, who lost both of his parents within the last five years, would choose to confront himself through the lens of a thinly veiled fiction. Each moment of The Fabelmans is a memory captured by a camera that’s captured by Tony Kushner’s co-written script, framed and blocked to match as much of his actual childhood as possible. It’s a movie about THE kid who made movies and it doesn’t hold back from confronting its own existence. Spielberg is as honest about his own nature as he is with with with those of his parents, viewing them almost as subjects in a movie he’s making and cannot help thinking about. It’s his safe space, one that allowed him to mentally endure everything from Anti-Semetic hatred in high school to his parents’ very confusing and difficult divorce.
Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle as a teenager, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as a young boy) is born to parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams). Burt is a computer engineer and Mitzi a homemaker that dreamed of being a concert pianist. These two take young Sammy to see that first movie, that magical experience where you’re old enough to wonder and dream and begin to build who you will be, and it changes him. We follow the family through the next near-decade of their lives as Sammy starts to put more and more of his life into his art while everything crumbles around him, from his parents’ relationships with Burt’s best friend Bennie to his social life when they move to California. It’s a tumultuous journey, one riddled with humor and sorrow and in one truly frightening moment even a bit of horror.
That ability to walk a tonal tightrope has always been a trick of Spielberg’s, able to weave deeply disturbing human fears into a dreamlike narrative that is all schmaltzy, silly, and deliberately earnest. Sammy’s lack of control during the loss of his nuclear family, which we’re told is something to be afraid of, serves as the creative catalyst that births the great modern American auteur.There’s no moment that doesn’t feel real, even if he’s embellished or split up or simply forgotten certain elements, and the dramatic weight of something like a first kiss or earning the respect of a bully or realizing your mom is a human being are all treated as the great moments they are in each of our stories. That ability to make a fantastical situation feel grounded, feel personal and connective and visceral to everyone in the audience, is what made the man’s name and he’s now applying all of those skills to his own sense of reality.
The entire film is shot by Janusz Kamiński, a frequent Spielberg collaborator that’s been with the director since Schindler’s List, and it feels like two masters of their craft laying it all out on the table. Each shot is so visually gripping and perfectly blocked that you get the sense this movie has existed in their heads for quite some time, being whittled down and shaped to perfection until they could finally be able to place it onscreen. Sequences take on a comedic tone for most of the runtime, riddled with fun reveals and camera work (and one joke about framing that turns out to be the funniest shit I’ve seen onscreen in ages), but Kamiński also takes time to showcase the inner life of young Sammy and it’s less-than-perfect nature. One particularly frightening moment involves a rather vicious argument around the dinner table as Sammy starts to see himself in the mirror, not sitting awkwardly but holding a camera and capturing the moment through a lens. It’s frightening because it took the seventy-five-year-old a lifetime to boldly show that this has been what so much of his career was dedicated to, leaving the audience to reflect on his complete body of work and wonder what’s hidden in there (at least to those that don’t merely view everything up to his Oscar win as some form of dealing with the divorce).
John Williams has announced his desire to retire from film scoring after the next Indiana Jones film. We’re all quite grateful (and lucky) that he squeezed out another wonderful album for Spielberg before he throws in the towel, though it may not be what everyone is expecting. Gone are some of the rousing trumpets, the strings, and the large blasts of power that made some of these men’s collaborative work so memorable. Instead, listen to the piano playing lovely sonatas and concertos over the dissolution of a series of relationships. Williams and Spielberg openly highlight the talents of Mitzi, the pianist based on Leah Spielberg, who feels trapped in the role of a wife to a genius and mother to another. Her own light is hidden under a bushel, but this is partially of her own doing. Williams takes that emotion and applies it to his score, weaving beautiful piano music into moments that sting and tickle and bite and frolic. If this is the note the men part professional ways on then we’re lucky to have had it.
The Fabelmans is a master of his craft and the height of his game. The king don’t miss, and sometimes we need to be reminded of that. I thought we had been when last year’s West Side Story took a classic and said “what if we can do better?” Spielberg wasn’t done, delivering a very honest and beautiful portrait of his childhood story that only he could have created. This serves as a better memoir than any other he could have released, told through the memory of a dream in the format that made him whole.
The Fabelmans is currently playing in theatres.