If there’s one director who’s earned the right to tell their story, it’s Steven Spielberg. After decades of hard work, Spielberg decides to tell his tale. The Fablemans could fall into the trappings of being a self-serving ego piece. But Spielberg avoids beating to the rhythm of his own drum. Except for 1941. The Fablemans is delicate, affectionate, and bold. Spielberg’s tenderness for his characters is what makes his work universally praised. Is Spielberg’s Fablemans a new classic? No, but it’s still a very good movie that shouldn’t go unrecognized.
By not calling his movie “The Spielbergs” but rather The Fabelmans, Spielberg makes it clear that his movie is a fable, not to be taken entirely by fact. What could be interpreted as truth or fiction is entirely up to the audience. It doesn’t matter what’s really happened in Steven’s life. What’s important is how the movie makes us feel. By adding fiction to reality, we’re drawn into a character’s psyche. Oliver Stone’s JFK is probably complete hogwash, but it’s considered a timeless master craft in filmmaking by many. JFK works because it captures the madness of a time in history that few other films could recreate.
The Fablemans have nothing in common with JFK other than they’re both stories based on real life. JFK is a film centered on fear and paranoia, where The Fablemans revolves around love and heartbreak. Although a familiar theme, Steven Spielberg continues to school everyone on sentimentality.
Sammy Fableman’s destiny is set after viewing his first film. Young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) is afraid of entering a dark movie theater while waiting in line to enter the cinema. His parents reassure the youngster there’s nothing to fear. Cut to Sammy witnessing a horrific train crash projected on the big screen. Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth seems like a perfectly safe movie to bring a child to. The film is about a traveling circus made for laughs and fun. A horrific death wasn’t expected. With humorous irony, Burt Fabelman (Paul Dano) purchases a table-sized train set for his son to play with the next day.
Being an engineer, Burt is fascinated by motion. Before entering the movie theater, Burt explains the process of the moving image to his son. The train, like film, draws a connection to ingenuity. The locomotive requires an engine to run and needs tracks to avoid collisions. The projector, like a train, runs on a track powered by a motor. The film moves rapidly through a flickering light projecting each frame, tricking the audience into thinking they’re watching something move. If the film falls off the track, the print could be destroyed.
Instead of running from what scares him, Sammy heads towards it with profound curiosity. Watching the toy train run smoothly is boring. Sammy wants it to collide. When telling his mother, Mitzi, about his fantasy, mom introduces her son to the camera. By filming the train crash on a little 8mm camera, Sammy can watch the destruction as many times as he wants without constantly wreaking dad’s nice toy. Glimpses of Spielberg’s natural talent is prevalent through the home video. The lights from the train unleash an intimidating flare while the camera whip pans to the wooden doll trapped in the car, awaiting his demise.
Through the parents, we can see how Spielberg went on to become the filmmaker he is today. Speilberg bears his soul through a fictionalized version of his mother for the entire world to see. Mitzi Fabelman isn’t well in the head. Her dreams of becoming a great pianist never came to fruition, possibly due to episodic behaviors. Whatever diagnosis Mitzi may have is never sought.
Playing the role of Mitzi is Michelle Williams, who pulls off an Oscar-caliber portrayal. The balance between psychotic and loving is delicately woven through Williams’ dazzling performance. Williams could have played Mitzii in a manic style. Instead of going for big emotions, Williams adds kindness to her character, not letting her disability define her.
To calm herself, Mitzi plays the piano. Mitzi’s sonatas serve as the film’s score. Transforming Mizi’s music into the film’s soundtrack is none other than John Williams. As a ninety-year-old man, John has come to the end of his career. His final score will be for Indiana Jones Five. Directed for the first time by someone other than Steven Spielberg. The Fabelmans is John Williams’ farewell to an old friend.
The sonatas carry a harmonious “thank you for all the years together.” Similar in his score to Schindler’s List, Williams doesn’t use the usual large eclectic orchestrations to symphonically tell the story. With fewer instruments, something more intimate is composed that goes beyond work.
The Fabelmans theme has an innocent yearning for a past that only exists in mind. Nostalgia can make us forget how imperfect the past was. For all its joy, the past can be painful, complicated, and a drug that’s difficult to escape from. Tied between art and family, Sammy knows he’ll have to cut one from his life. Midway through the film, we follow the path of Sammy as a teenager. Gabriel LaBelle (teenaged Sammy Fabelman) bears a resemblance to Steven Spielberg that’s subtle in approach. It’s not a mirror image, but close enough that the audience can tell it’s supposed to be young Steven.
All across the board, the cast shines. LaBelle is a compelling young man who doesn’t fake his emotions. Paul Dano’s nerdy demeanor works in his favor as the tech genius dad, and Even Seth Rogan shines as a titular character who contains one of the film’s most painful scenes.
To complete the cast is the honorable Judd Hirsch, who makes a grand appearance as Uncle Boris. A man whose life endeavoring art wound him up as a penniless circus performer. He’s the danger that exists in pursuing art. One can’t live with both art and family. A path must be chosen. Boris is a reminder of what happens when one doesn’t succeed when pursuing your dreams. An artist can be damned to live on scraps instead of having a nice house as Burt Fabelman does.
The Fabelmans structure stumbles during the middle act. The family’s narrative is more compelling than the high school drama. As a high schooler in the 1960s, Sammy becomes a victim of antisemitism. Where the first half of the film plays as an unpredictable, well-constructed collection of memories, the high school portion gets bogged down in familiarity, which plays like a typical high school drama but with a degree of that Spielberg visual touch from Janusz Kaminski and music from John Williams that sets Steven’s films on the top of Hollywood’s hills.
Near the film’s end, Sammy’s bully Logan Hall (Sam Rechner), has a big weepy confrontation with Sammy that may have happened in real life but didn’t seem believable in the context of the film. Still, I credit Spielberg for not making Logan a cardboard cutout bully. Steven Spielberg has a unique heart that few other filmmakers have. He never wastes a role or disposes of characters carelessly.
Jurassic Park is an easy example of a film that any other director could mishandle. JP isn’t memorable for its special effect. It’s the character’s journey and how they change that drives the emotion. For instance, Dr. Grant is a man who doesn’t wish to be a father. When confronted with protecting two children during a Dino outbreak, Grant’s views on fatherhood changes. Through that narrative, we see Grant change, investing the audience in the characters.
No character is judged in a Spielberg picture unless it’s a Nazi. The Fabelmans is a love letter to Steven’s family that is elegant and honest to its recipients. Spielberg doesn’t need to compile his life story for the world to see. Yet he does so with a measure of sentiment and intricacy that few other filmmakers can achieve.
Although Mitzi is unstable, she’s not harmful to anyone or herself. She’ll do anything to keep her children happy. Perhaps more than Burt. Although a perfectly likable person, who’s also a good father and husband. Burt isn’t afraid to move or leave his family if an opportunity arises.
Despite their faults, Mr. and Mrs. Fabelmans are incredible parents that Sammy can’t live with forever. For his dreams rest in the stars. There’s a beauty in The Fabelmans that cuts deeper than crazy mom, selfish dad, or bigoted bully. The Fabelmans is Steven Spielberg’s homage to Cinema Paradiso. An honorable, therapeutic picture of an artist whose legacy continues to burn bright.