Spielberg's ‘The Fabelmans’ shows us the man behind the movies - film review

It won’t surprise anyone who has ever seen a Spielberg movie to know that what saved him – what elevated him – was both his love for movies and his talent for creating them.

 THE FABELMAN family in Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Fabelmans.’  (photo credit: UNITED KING MOVIES)
THE FABELMAN family in Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Fabelmans.’
(photo credit: UNITED KING MOVIES)

V. S. Naipaul once wrote, “An autobiography can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies; it reveals the writer totally.”

The  Naipaul quote came to mind when I watched Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, which opens throughout Israel on November 24, and which tells a fictionalized version of his life as a coming-of-age story. It’s the first time, after five decades of entertaining audiences around the world with tales of sharks, aliens, dinosaurs, Nazis, slave rebellions and other mythical and real creatures and historical stories, that he has chosen to reveal himself in this way. 

But as the quote suggests, he has been telling us who he is in veiled ways all along. It was easy to see a stand-in for the director in the wide-eyed boy, upset over his parents’ divorce, who bonds with the alien in E.T., the frazzled dad whose life is transformed by his glimpse of an otherworldly life form in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or even in the shlumpy academic obsessed with sharks and the beach-town police chief who doesn’t like the water in Jaws. 

Many, perhaps most of his movies, whatever the setting, present a version of the classic hero’s journey and now he gives us a story shaped by his own life that follows that trajectory, up to a point. But his adversaries are not fantastic creatures, real or imagined, and his hero does not save people from Nazis, as Schindler did, or unify the nation conflicted over slavery, like Lincoln. 

 STEVEN SPIELBERG (credit: MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS) STEVEN SPIELBERG (credit: MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS)

Who is the villain of Spielberg's story?

THE ENEMY HERE is the stress and pain of his parents’ troubled marriage, as well as his status as an outsider. As a Jew in Christian communities he always felt excluded from mainstream American life and eventually was bullied by a group of antisemitic jocks in high school. 

It won’t surprise anyone who has ever seen a Spielberg movie to know that what saved him – what elevated him – was both his love for movies, which he devoted himself to making from the night he saw his first feature film, and his talent for creating them. When he triumphs, it isn’t only because he loves movies, but also because he is so good at making them. The movies reciprocate his love for them and audiences will enjoy seeing that love story play out. 

It opens when Sammy Fabelman is mesmerized by the first movie he sees, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. 

Fabelman is played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord as a child and Gabriel LaBelle when the character turns adolescent, both of whom give the kind of brilliant, wholly convincing and appealing performances we expect from young actors in a Spielberg movie, 

Back at home, he longs to recreate the spectacular train crash scene from the film’s climax, and soon is using a home-movie camera to film crashes he stages with the fancy train set he gets for Hanukkah. He never stops making movies for the rest of his life, except briefly following a depression caused by a  traumatic moment which, naturally, he discovers because he has captured it on film. 

HIS PARENTS each nurture and inspire his obsessive ambition in different ways. Burt (Paul Dano), a computer scientist, explains how movies work and teaches him to embrace movie technology, while his mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams, in a performance that may well win her an Oscar), a concert pianist who gave up her musical aspirations to raise a family, teaches him to love the emotional, artistic side of storytelling. “Movies are dreams that you never forget,” Mitzi tells him, and also saying, “In this family, it’s the scientists versus the artists and Sammy’s on my team, takes after me.”

But the conflict Mitzi mentions here goes deeper than just the two spouses having different sensibilities. The strife in their marriage and Mitzi’s deep discontentment with her domestic life cast a shadow over the household. In many ways, the family’s life is joyous, as both  the parents encourage him in their different ways to create movies, and his sisters become his first actors, playing kidnapped stagecoach passengers or mummies draped in toilet paper. 

His youngest sister, documentary producer Nancy Spielberg, wrote a very engaging recent article for The Jerusalem Post describing what it was like to see her family’s life on screen.

But there was another important figure in their lives, their father’s co-worker and best friend, Bennie (Seth Rogen), a funny guy whom everyone loved. But Mitzi loved him in a different way and eventually left the family and married him. 

This isn’t a revelation, it’s something that Spielberg has spoken about in interviews, but he never went into detail about the pain watching his family fall apart caused him, until now. Mitzi could charm her children, dancing and playing music for them, but she also upset and sometimes scared them, even buying a monkey who freaked everyone out. 

It’s interesting that his fervent wish for escape – later expressed in his fascination with outer space and other worlds – began with the same kind of pedestrian domestic misery that so many of us experienced growing up. 

JUST WHEN SAMMY would be expected to start widening his horizons from his family to his friends, the Fabelmans moved to California, which seemed to Sammy and his sisters like a land of giants, and he was cruelly bullied by a clique of dimwitted antisemitic jocks. It was the height of the turmoil in his home-life and he had put aside his movie-making, only to take it up again in a way that freed him from the bullies and won the heart of his Bible-thumping Christian girlfriend (Chloe East), who couldn’t deny her attraction to two Jewish men, Sammy and Jesus. 

Filled with purpose, Sammy heads off at the end to conquer the movie industry, and a brief meeting with his idol, master director John Ford (played by Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks director David Lynch) that changes his perspective, both figuratively and literally. 

Spielberg, of course, knows how to tell a story, and his skill doesn’t fail him when it’s his own. The movie, which runs two hours and 30 minutes, actually feels much shorter than that. I could have done without the message about the conflict between art and life driven home by his Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), a former silent-movie actor who tells him, “Art is our drug.” 

But The Fabelmans is both fun and moving, two qualities we always associate with Spielberg’s movies. For anyone who grew up on his films, it will have a special resonance as you can glimpse how moments from his life inspired his movies, but I suspect that younger audiences who are less familiar with his work will also enjoy The Fabelmans. Maybe for some, it will even play the same role in inspiring their creativity that The Greatest Show on Earth did in his.