A handful of directors have given us movies about their youth, but none of their origin stories are as well-known as Steven Spielberg’s. In The Fabelmans the most famous and successful filmmaker of our time offers his version of the events that shaped his life and career. Somewhat surprisingly, he exposes his interior life as well as his narrative. And being Steven Spielberg, he has made certain that the result is a crowd-pleaser.
The Fabelmans opens on the night he saw Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952 and illustrates what motivated him to pick up a movie camera for the first time: he wanted to know how the Old Master staged and edited a heart-stopping train wreck. His father is dismissive of the results but his mother understands what her son is all about. “He wants control,” she says…and she’s right.
But the film isn’t just a cavalcade of boyhood misadventures. It’s a finely-tuned emotional drama about a dysfunctional marriage between an artistic-minded free spirit and a scientific nerd, as seen through the eyes of their son. These characters are multilayered in the script Spielberg wrote with Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner and played to perfection by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano. The film doesn’t villainize either spouse, although in real life the director blamed his father for breaking up the family until (much later) he learned the whole story behind their divorce. That divorce has figured mightily in Spielberg’s work, most notably E.T. the Extra Terrestial, and this film is dedicated to his mother and father.
At a time when films seem to go on forever, I was unaware that two and a half hours went by. In the course of events, Steven and his three sisters move from New Jersey to Arizona and then to Northern California, where our young hero experiences bullying, teenage romance, and anti-Semitism for the first time. He also learns that the movie camera can serve as a wedge between him and his subjects, often to his advantage. There is a wonderful coda that ends the movie on a whimsical note, as one would hope and expect the filmmaker to do.
I am just one of millions who have followed Spielberg’s career from its inception and I’m glad that he has chosen film as a way of sharing his life story, instead of writing a conventional autobiography. It is fitting that he has accomplished this with so many of the collaborators who have been at his side over the years—cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, editor Michael Kahn, production designer Rick Carter, and of course composer John Williams.
Spielberg’s story isn’t over yet, but he is still on top of his game at the age of 75. This movie proves it conclusively.