‘The Fabelmans’ Is the Rare Great Movie About the Ecstasy of Cinema

Ora Sawyers

When I saw Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” at the Toronto Film Festival in September, I absolutely loved it. And while I never expected the film to be some breakout smash, my hope for it — and my cautiously optimistic prediction — is that it would find a hook into the culture. I assumed that a drama about how Steven Spielberg got to be the genius he is would resonate, in a big way, with movie fans from multiple generations. Okay, not so much with those under 35. But that still leaves a lot of us!

“The Fabelmans,” I think, has a bad title — it sounds like a sitcom starring David Schwimmer and Mayim Bialik as the parents. But the movie is a rapt and enveloping experience, a true memoir on film. (If Spielberg had written the story of his youth in book form, without changing the names, I doubt it could have been more intimate or detailed.) Like all good memoirs, the movie is about a few things at once — in this case, the adventure of growing up, the pleasures and perils of becoming an artist, and the torment of watching your parents split up.

“The Fabelmans” carves out its own place in the cinema of divorce, as the relationship of Mitzi and Burt Fabelman, played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, disintegrates over time, almost in slow motion, more in sadness than anger. It’s not that the two hate each other; they’re just not right for each other. Over the decades, the pop drama of divorce has generated its own claw-baring fight-and-revenge clichés, to the point that it almost never captures this all-too-common reality the way that “The Fabelmans” does.  

But, of course, the saga of Spielberg’s parents’ divorce, which he’s discussed in interviews many times, and which became the template for the broken homes in his own movies going back to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), is not a subject that’s likely to get a lot of viewers revved. The lure of “The Fabelmans” is how Spielberg, as a Middle American kid growing up in the ’50s and early ’60s, fell in love with making movies — and how, in doing so, he reinvented movies from the ground up. That’s because he was flying blind, making it all up as he went along.

You might say, “Spielberg and the scratchy 8mm home movies he made as a kid? Sorry, but that sounds like some serious inside boomer baseball.” Except that Spielberg occupies a special place in our culture. What other film director has been, simultaneously, as cathartic a populist entertainer as Alfred Hitchcock and as pure and bravura an artist as Martin Scorsese? Answer: None. Only Spielberg. His films have excited people — to their souls, but on a mass scale — in a way that’s unique. He’s a filmmaker who, by following his muse, remade the language of Hollywood. And that’s what I mean when I say that “The Fabelmans” felt like a movie that could, and should, exert a wide appeal. The greatest movies Spielberg has made are a part of us. A film drama about his filmmaking is, in a funny way, about us — about his discovery and cultivation of a gift that changed pop culture, and maybe changed the world, period.

Over this weekend, it’s become clear that the audience for that movie is a lot more limited than it might have been just a few years ago. There are reasons for that: the streaming revolution, the lingering reticence of older moviegoers to brave theaters in the wake of the pandemic. But let’s leave the box office aside. “The Fabelmans” is a marvel of a movie, featuring a performance, by Gabriel LaBelle, as Sammy Fabelman — the teenage Spielberg — that’s the most subtle and lived-in performance as a teenage protagonist I’ve seen since John Cusack’s in “Say Anything” and maybe Jean-Pierre Léaud’s in “The 400 Blows.” I realize I’m not supposed to be comparing a movie like “The Fabelmans” to a timeless Truffaut classic, but the performances are actually quite similar — LaBelle, like Léaud, shows us the quiet whirrings of the hero’s mind, the internal reactions he won’t say out loud. It might be the best performance by an actor I’ve seen this year.       

What “The Fabelmans” shows us, quite thrillingly, is the obsession with filmmaking that took hold of Spielberg. True obsession is a difficult quality to dramatize, but Spielberg, working from the intricate and note-perfect script he wrote with Tony Kushner, does it in the canniest of ways. He turns the story of what he did as a novice kid movie director into a journey, an adventure we follow, with tingles of triumph and lightbulb ingenuity along the way. He invites us to share in the seduction and trickery and ecstasy of making movies. He does it by showing us, at every stage, how Sammy discovers who he is in the films that he’s making. He forges his identity in what the cinema can see, in the way it mirrors and shapes life. Here’s how that happens.

For Sammy, cinema starts with the imagination of disaster. “The Fabelmans” opens with Sammy going to see his very first movie, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” He’s an 8-year-old tyke (played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord), and the scene in the Cecil B. DeMille schlock epic that grips and haunts him is the climactic train crash — he’s traumatized by it. But where does trauma leave off and fascination begin? In the young Spielberg, they’re a whisker apart. At home, Sammy asks for and receives a toy train set, then takes his family’s 8mm home-movie camera and attempts to restage — and film — the crash, using multiple camera angles, all as a way to conquer his fear, to master that crash by controlling it. It’s startling to consider the dark place that the DNA of Spielberg’s virtuosity came from. But it’s not much of a leap, really, from that staged toy-train disaster to “Jaws” or “Duel,” the 1971 TV-movie about a demon truck that put Spielberg on the map. The whole reason we watch movies like “Jaws” or “Duel” is that, in their rotating axis of fear and danger and excitement and death, they express, metaphorically, the existential fear and anxiety of everyday life. Spielberg knew this as a kid because he was possessed by it.   

He becomes a poet of reality. As a teenager, Sammy is making a Western. When he looks at the footage that he has shot of a gunfight, he’s disappointed; it looks fake. So he gets the idea to punch tiny holes in the film reels, which creates the effect of each gunshot being a jarring blinding pop. The effect is kinesthetic; with one seemingly crude necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention visual effect, he has actually shot ahead of mainstream Hollywood — he makes you feel the bullets. It’s the impulse behind that that will carry him far. Spielberg has always taken the reality that other films show us and heightened it, most spectacularly in his war films and alien-visitation films, but in countless other ways as well.         

He invents what movies are for himself. In “The Fabelmans,” we don’t really see Sammy watching movies or TV. He does take in a showing of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” and it’s not as if Spielberg is pretending he didn’t see other films. That, obviously, is where he steals his teen-home-movie images of stagecoaches and World War II battlefields. But the way he shoots them is another story. He moves the camera with a gliding freedom, not so much imitating Hollywood as taking what you would see on a Hollywood set and shooting it with his own high-flying, anything-goes ardor. Hitchcock, after seeing “Jaws,” famously said of Spielberg that “he’s the first one of us who doesn’t see the proscenium arch.” More than anything, it was Spielberg’s off-kilter way of framing a shot, in the ’70s, that defined him as a revolutionary talent. His framing imparted an eerie quality of awareness; it’s as if he was shooting a movie and, at the same time, circling around the movie you were watching. “The Fabelmans” shows you that he never saw the proscenium arch. He was too busy letting the camera drift right through it.  

He learns that movies can see more than we know. “The Fabelmans” is not a drama that lacks in intrigue. For a while, it becomes a visual suspense thriller like “Blow-Up” when Sammy discovers his mother’s romantic feelings for his “Uncle” Bennie (Seth Rogan) — actually a family friend — by noticing their hidden interactions in the home movie he has made of a camping trip. I think it’s meant to be understood that Mitzi and Bennie, at this point, have a platonic relationship. But what Sammy has inadvertently filmed speaks volumes. It’s not just this gesture or that telltale caress; he has captured, in silent film, their unvocalized feelings. Talk about realism! This is his discovery of the hidden power of film — to show us what is true, maybe more than reality does.    

He turns reality into mythology. Throughout “The Fabelmans,” we see Sammy acquire things as a filmmaker: techniques, tricks, insights, better equipment. He puts it all together when he’s tapped to make a film of his class’s Senior Ditch Day trip to the beach. It will be his magnum opus — and also his act of revenge against the WASP bully who tormented him and beat him up for being Jewish. But the most fascinating thing Sammy does, and the most mysterious part of “The Fabelmans,” is when he uses his little movie to turn the bully’s pal, Logan (Sam Rechner), into a kind of Aryan golden god. Is Sammy mocking or exalting him? Maybe both. But when Sammy is confronted by Logan in an empty hallway, we see that Logan feels not just mocked or guilty. (He feels both.) He feels steamrolled by the power of how a movie could remake his identity. And what Sammy has shown himself is this: Movies can be revenge, they can be transformation, they can be lies — but more than all of that, movies can be mythology. They have the power to elevate anything into its own truth.         

Meeting John Ford, he gets a lesson in turning Hollywood classicism upside down. The movie’s final scene, which reenacts a meeting the teenage Spielberg had with John Ford, gives the film its beautiful zinger of an ending. What it’s all about — apart from the cussed charge with which David Lynch plays Ford — is the lesson Ford teaches Sammy, after asking him to look at several paintings of the Old West, each one with the horizon in a different place. Ford’s message would seem to be his elemental rule for how to frame a shot. Yet Spielberg used that lesson to shore up his own intuitive sense of “off” framing, so that the audience would see an image as they had never seen it before. At that moment, Ford passes the baton to Spielberg, but Spielberg will turn Ford’s classicism on its head. (That’s the sublime joke of the film’s final shot.) For Ford, it was all about keeping the compositions “interesting.” For Spielberg, with his spiel that casts a spell, it was about realizing that the essence of life is almost never at the center.

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