The Fabelmans (2022)
In the excellent HBO documentary Spielberg, the director recalls the profound reaction he had to Lawrence of Arabia, and how for the first time he realised that as well as the film’s narrative were character themes that pointed to what the heart of the story was. The example he highlighted were the juxtaposing scenes of Lawrence admiring his pristine dagger with a later scene in which it is covered in Turkish blood. Spielberg employs a similar act in The Fabelmans, substituting the dagger for a film reel. When passed from mother to son, it awakens in Sammy (Spielberg’s on-screen counterpart) the joy of filmmaking. Years later, when Sammy presents his mother with a reel, it signals the end of his enchantment.
It was Sammy’s mother who first alerted him to the dreamlike quality of movies. While his engineer father, explains the mechanics behind the persistence of vision, Mitzi fills Sammy’s head with images of clowns, acrobats and elephants. Their shared secret sees him recreating the train crash sequence from his first movie experience, The Greatest Show on Earth, after which the boy becomes enamoured with making movies. If he’s not corralling his sisters into appearing in his latest horror or western, Sammy is recording everyday events of his family’s life. Yet so focussed is he on his camera's view finder that Sammy is oblivious to the wider picture playing out around him. Until it too is captured by his lens.
The Fabelmans finds Spielberg at the peak of his directorial powers. At an age when even John Ford (portrayed by David Lynch in a wonderful cameo) had retired, Spielberg continues to delight movie going audiences with his art. In his most autobiographical film to date, the director shares the joy he felt watching and making movies as a child. Yet within this idealised world where dreams are supported by loving parents and long-suffering siblings, knowing looks and things unsaid hint at another dynamic that children may be aware of but lack the maturity to comprehend.
Among the long-time collaborators helping Spielberg realise this dream are cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who provides a richly varied palette for each location the family is uprooted to, and composer John Williams, whose score marvellously references past masters Elmer Bernstein and Max Steiner. The only colleague who lets the director down is his writer, Steven Spielberg. As with his previous efforts Close Encounters of the Third Kind and A.I. Artificial Intelligence one wishes the control Spielberg maintained as a director extended to his screenplays which can, on occasion, meander.
as Sammy Fabelman (Steven Spielberg)
as John Ford
Though billed as semi-autobiographical, many of the events depicted in the film occurred in Spielberg’s life:
Spielberg’s father was an engineer and his mother was a talented pianist.
Spielberg has three younger sisters and an Uncle Boris.
The Greatest Show on Earth was the first movie Spielberg saw.
Spielberg was a Boy Scout.
Spielberg made many 8mm films as a child.
Spielberg’s mother did buy a pet monkey.
Spielberg did discover ’the family secret’ through the lens of his camera.
Spielberg’s parents got divorced after his mother fell in love with his father’s friend.
The John Ford sequence is an accurate depiction of Spielberg’s meeting with the director.
Biopic recreates scenes from 8mm films Spielberg shot as a child, including Gun Smog, Escape to Nowhere and some home movies.