Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | November 22nd, 2022
The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg, 2022) 3½ out of 4 stars.
At the end of The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s charming homage to his own childhood, the protagonist, Sam Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle, The Predator), meets his directing idol, a grizzled veteran of Hollywood’s golden years, who offers him a gruff few sentences on how to make a good movie. By then, we already know that Sam is precociously talented and could probably do alright without the terse advice, but the scene is emblematic of the entire enterprise: well-written (and not overly so), filled with great performances, and nostalgic without excessive halcyon glow. Best of all, Spielberg (West Side Story) withholds his penchant for sentiment to offer a film in which both laughter and tears are wholly earned.
The Fabelmans opens with a bang, in 1952, young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) brought to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth by parents Burt (Paul Dano, The Batman) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams, Venom). After Burt briefly explains how movies work (it’s Sam’s first picture), they sit, mom and dad amused at the boy’s complete fascination with what’s happening on screen. It’s the climactic train crash and derailment that truly captivate Sam’s imagination, however, and thereafter he first begs for his own train set for Hanukkah and then asks Mitzi to help him film his own derailment reenactment, over and over again, using Burt’s 8mm camera.
All the while, life in New Jersey goes on, shared with both grandmothers and Burt’s best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen, Long Shot). The two men are electrical engineers, though Burt is the real genius; Bennie is good at making people laugh, especially Mitzi. Before long, Burt is offered a job at General Electric, which is a great opportunity but means they have to move to Arizona. In a brilliant quick cut (this is a Spielberg film, after all), we found ourselves out West, with Sam and friends dressed in Scout uniforms (à la the opening of the third Indiana Jones film). He’s now a teen and surrounded by helpmates, allowing him to make his own Westerns and war films like John Ford, whose work he admires.
Though Mitzi is supportive, Burt thinks movies are just a hobby. In the meantime, Burt is on the cusp of inventing computing as we know it, with a soon-to-come shift to IBM, in California. Mitzi, a pianist who never quite followed her dreams of playing professionally, wants a little more out of life than crunching numbers or living day to day. Good thing Bennie followed them to Arizona.
Spielberg and his co-writer, Tony Kushner (with whom he has worked since the 2005 Munich), have fashioned a seemingly rambling, yet ever-astute meditation on art and filmmaking, turning time and again to the glorious power of the moving image to inspire, astound, and transform. There’s a deeply moving sequence involving a camping-hoe movie that plays out as a gentle lesson on the power of editing. A later moment in the California high school where Sam lands after they move again further elaborates on this notion of how much the camera and the way footage is cut can reshape how the viewer sees the onscreen subject. None of it is pedantic; all of it transfixes.
About that California community: for the first time (at least in this movie), Sam encounters virulent anti-Semitism, forced to confront a bigotry heretofore missing from the narrative (though the Fabelmans were the only Jews in their New Jersey neighborhood). Even the cute girl, Monica (Chloe East, The Wolf of Snow Hollow), who develops a crush on Sam, does so mostly because she, as a devout Christian, imagines him as some sort of modern-day copy of Christ (who was Jewish, after all). After some bullying, Sam manages to get by, thanks—you guessed it—to his skills as a filmmaker.
How much here is myth and how much true? Given that Ford’s 1962 The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—which deals explicitly with the way legends come to be, facts be damned—figures prominently here, that is perhaps the wrong question. A quick online search reveals that the basic outline of Spielberg’s early biography is respected. But what really matters in The Fabelmans is not the truth of the past so much as the truth of the past as seen through a lens. Reality is far more interesting to watch when structured as a three-act narrative and captured and shaped by a filmmaker who knows how to do it. And though this movie runs a little long, it takes us on a memorable journey into the backstory of a man who, almost more than any other, has shaped our cinematic dreams for the past 50 years. That’s entertainment, and so much more.