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  • Post last modified:February 28, 2023

The Fabelmans: Rise of Spielberg


Michelle Williams and Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord. Photo: Amblin Entertainment

The COVID-19 pandemic made Steven Spielberg think. What if he only had one more film to make, what would that be? There was one story he had been pondering since 1999, when his sister Anne wrote a script called ”I’ll Be Home”. It was his family’s story, but he decided to wait. Five years later, he was talking to screenwriter Tony Kushner about his upbringing. The subject would come up again years later, when the two of them collaborated on West Side Story (2021). By then, Spielberg felt ready. His mother was dead and his father would pass away at the age of 103 as Spielberg and Kushner started writing the script for The Fabelmans.

To me, the subject didn’t sound thrilling on paper, but this heartfelt, utterly charming film is the director’s best since Saving Private Ryan (1998). 

An enthralling train crash
In 1952, five-year-old Sammy Fabelman goes to a movie theater together with his parents, Mitzi and Burt (Michelle Williams, Paul Dano), for the first time. He’s a little scared, but becomes enthralled by The Greatest Show on Earth, especially a train crash that he tries to recreate with a model set in the basement of his home. It’s his mother who hands him Burt’s 8mm camera and tells him to make a film. The hobby turns into a passion, as Sammy starts making movies together with his siblings.

A few years later, when Burt, who’s an engineer, is offered a new job in Phoenix, the whole family moves there; Burt’s business partner and close friend Benny (Seth Rogen) also joins them. This is where Sammy starts learning painful but valuable lessons…

An element of fiction to it
The family’s name, Fabelmans, was chosen because it’s related to ”spiel” as in Spielberg and as a nod to the fact that this is obviously not the whole truth about the director’s family; there’s always an element of fiction to it. Much of it did happen though. It may not seem like a remarkable story, but there isn’t a dull moment in this portrait of a family and its issues. Spielberg and Kushner address grief, mental problems, infidelity and the pain of divorce, all movingly brought to life by Williams and Dano’s performances; especially the former is a tour-de-force as the artistic and emotional mother. In their portrait of a teenager’s transition from child to adult, the writers address the evil of antisemitism and the shock of discovering the power of the moving image. It’s through the lens that Sammy suddenly discovers the truth he couldn’t see before, and finds his talent for manipulating reality, leading to a revealing showdown near the end between Sammy and the school’s leading jock/asshole.

Together with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the director offers many striking visual moments.

As expected, the film is irresistible to anyone who loves movies. The power of the medium is frequently illustrated in the many ways that filmmaking becomes an eye-opener for Sammy. There’s also the dark allure of a passion that might make you lonely, a lesson emphasized by the intense uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), but we also understand that there’s a lot of that in the deep, artistic connection between Spielberg and his piano-playing mother. Together with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, the director offers many striking visual moments (including the sight of young Sammy using his hands as a projection screen), elevated by John Williams’s discreet but moving piano score.

In spite of the film’s dark moments, it sends you out with a smile. That’s because of a last scene that takes place in John Ford’s office, where this Hollywood giant (wonderfully played by David Lynch) gives Sammy his best, and bluntest, advice. Sheer perfection. 

The Fabelmans 2022-U.S. 151 min. Color. Produced by Tony Kushner, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Steven Spielberg. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Screenplay: Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner. Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski. Music: John Williams. Cast: Gabriel LaBelle (Samuel Fabelman), Michelle Williams (Mitzi Fabelman), Paul Dano (Burt Fabelman), Seth Rogen, Julia Butters, Judd Hirsch… David Lynch. 

Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture (Drama), Director. 

Last word: “When we started writing this — Tony in New York, me in L.A. on Zoom — it started to become real, something that was tactile and triggering in all of these memories. It did become very difficult. It’s hard to hold someone’s hand over Zoom, but Tony did a good job in giving me the kind of comfort I needed when we were tapping into moments in my life, secrets between myself and my mother that I was never ever, ever going to talk about. Neither in a written autobiography, which I’ve never done, or on film. But we got into those tender trenches.” (Spielberg, The New York Times)

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