Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans is irresistible from its opening frames as midcentury computer scientist Burt (Paul Dano) and pianist Mitzi (Michelle Williams) take their firstborn, six-year-old Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) to his very first big-screen movie, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1952 circus spectacular The Greatest Show on Earth. Sammy is dubious and uncomprehending as his father explains to him the concept of persistence of vision. It is a short, funny scene that expresses Spielberg’s lifelong (not to mention, extremely lucrative) love affair with flickering images and the stories they tell.
Billed as Spielberg’s most personal movie to date, well, of course, it is. The fictional family may be named Fabelman but this is the story of the Spielbergs, however much it may fudge the facts. Written by the director with his West Side Story collaborator, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, it is both a kind of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as it portrays Sammy’s passion for making movies and also a portrait of an American family that buries emotional landmines under the veneer of fixed smiles. It is both Spielberg’s origin story and his coming to terms with his past.
As dramas go, The Fabelmans is overlong. There is fat to be cut, which one imagines teenage Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle) – shown often hunched at his desking, editing his movies – thoughtfully removing from the work. But Spielberg isn’t 16 anymore, he is 60 years older and it is clear that every frame is important to him emotionally, occasionally to the film’s detriment. In particular, a scene with Judd Hirsch as Sammy’s lion-tamer great uncle who understands his great nephew’s artistic impulses, telling him, “You’re going to join the circus,” is lovely – and wholly unnecessary.
And once the family moves to Northern California when Sammy is in high school, bringing the problems in the Burt and Mitzi’s marriage into sharp focus and introducing Sammy to antisemitism and first love, the wheels kind of fall off the movie before righting itself again in The Fabelmans’ closing scenes. It’s more a matter of rhythm than anything else. Scenes play out too long and some become repetitive. Again, it is hard to fault Spielberg. This is his story, and he has to tell it the way he needs to tell it even if his younger self – the guy who made Duel and Jaws and the wunderkind who was 22 when he directed screen legend Joan Crawford in the pilot episode of Night Gallery – probably would have sent him back to the cutting room to more sharply hone his creation.
LaBelle is terrific as Sammy, perfectly expressing hurt, anger, and confusion at his family’s situation and in his complicated relationship with his mother. But he is even better in the scenes in which Sammy starts on the path that will define his life. The moviemaking scenes, whether on location explaining to his cast how he wants a scene played or alone in his room cutting away, are fabulous, expressing youthful passion and wonder at the act of creation.
Even better are the products of those creations. The movies within the movie are enchanting. Recreating his own early experiments in filmmaking, the past six decades fall away. Spielberg finds his young self in these scenes and they are simply magical. As one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, he has become an auteur of blockbuster filmmaking but this time he scores with a story that is much more intimate.
It is a little disconcerting seeing Paul Dano suddenly grown middle-aged – has it really been that long since Little Miss Sunshine? – but he is wonderful as Sammy’s genius and too good-natured for his own good dad. Williams as highly strung Mitzi once more makes a case for GOAT of her generation. Director David Lynch is hilarious in a small cameo playing one of Sammy’s (and Spielberg’s) directing idols. On the technical side of things, Oscar-winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan) delivers luminous images in which every moment seems to be magic time and 90-year-old John Williams contributes one of his most elegant scores.
The Fabelmans is not Spielberg’s final film. Just this past week, he announced a new collaboration with Bradley Cooper that will resurrect Steve McQueen’s Bullitt character. Nevertheless, the drama has the feeling of a summing up, a story he needed to tell before time runs out. Luckily, for all the rest of us, who get to watch the tale unfold. – Pam Grady