How did Steven Spielberg – some kid uprooted several times over his life, taken from New Jersey to Arizona to California, then shattered by his parents’ divorce – become one of the great cornerstones of American popular culture? In The Fabelmans, already an Oscars frontrunner, the director assembles, memorialises and then fictionalises his own childhood. The script, which he co-wrote with Tony Kushner, is far more inquisitive than it is celebratory; it chips away at the ultimate question of his existence.
Mitzi (Michelle Williams), who bears many similarities to Spielberg’s own mother, Leah, is a woman who has moored herself to the mantra of “everything happens for a reason”. She’s a concert pianist who set aside her artistry in order to raise a family, a wilful romantic who settled for the man (Paul Dano’s Burt, based on Spielberg’s father, Arnold) whose love is steady and, at its worst, airless. She’s not unhappy, for the most part, but she can only survive under the reassurance that somebody else is really at the driving wheel.
The Fabelmans, really, wasn’t all that necessary to understand Spielberg as an artist. That sense of displacement, that childlike want to heal what’s fractured, is eternally present in his work, from AI Artificial Intelligence to ET: the Extra-Terrestrial to Catch Me If You Can. But there’s something disarmingly humble about The Fabelmans and the simplicity of its desire to pinpoint the ordinary roots of future greatness.
His onscreen surrogate, Sammy Fabelman (played first by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, then Gabriel LaBelle), allows Spielberg to imagine himself as the perfect synthesis of his real-life parents. Mitzi believes “movies are dreams”, while Burt, a computer engineer, finds pride in what he can craft with his own two hands. It’s a fair assumption for Spielberg to make, as even The Fabelmans goes to prove; here, sentimentality is given a sturdy foundation through the director’s usual virtuoso camerawork, which glides and swoops around his characters at all sorts of improbable but unshowy angles. Williams’s fairytale wistfulness is counterbalanced by Dano’s stillness, while LaBelle’s twinkly-eyed naivete is rooted in the lacquered beauty of Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography. The film’s riotous, final-scene cameo – in which Sammy has a formative encounter with “the greatest director who ever lived” – is partly cute, partly wry and self-effacing.
When Sammy’s parents take him to see his first motion picture, 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth, he becomes obsessed with replicating its climactic crash with his toy train set. And it’s here that Spielberg starts to narrow in on the fundamental truth – that his life’s vocation wasn’t born merely out of love, but out of profound fear. The crash scared Sammy. By recreating it himself, he’s able to exert some control over it. But he also starts to realise how the camera has trained him to look for the most minute, yet illuminating, signs of existence: the slowing pulse of an ailing relative, throbbing through the skin of their neck; a line of shopping carts, herded like sheep by an incoming tornado; or the squadron-like formation of kids on bicycles (a future Spielberg staple).
The camera has allowed Sammy to see what so many others miss, which turns out to have devastating consequences not only for his parents but for his father’s best friend (Seth Rogen’s Bennie), whose constant presence has ingratiated him with the family. There’s a cynicism here that aligns The Fabelmans more with Damien Chazelle’s portrait of early Hollywood, Babylon, than it does with Sam Mendes’s recent, mawkish “love letter to cinema”, Empire of Light.
As Sammy’s granduncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), his only relative with actual ties to the industry, warns him: “Art will give you crowns in heaven and laurels on Earth, but it’ll tear your heart out.” Spielberg’s motivation for The Fabelmans has little to do with cementing his own myth – it’s a more tender, more bittersweet journey towards the realisation that, though the camera never lies, what it shows us can be hard to swallow.
Dir: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle, Judd Hirsch. 12A, 151 minutes.
‘The Fabelmans’ is in cinemas from 27 January
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