Few directors pace a movie better. Few are as unerring when it comes to camera placement. And although he knows how to create stirring images, Spielberg also has gotten amazing performances during the course of what has become a long career.
Think Robert Shaw in Jaws. Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List. Leonardo DiCaprio in Catch Me If You Can. Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.
You get the idea. Spielberg not only makes movies but, as a friend once said, he knows how to make movies.
For the most part, Spielberg also knows what makes a good story.
But does that mean that a movie based on Spielberg's life makes for a compelling tale?
That's the question that I kept asking myself while watching The Fabelmans, a quasi-autobiographical coming-of-age movie about an aspiring filmmaker and his sometimes troubled family.
The answer to the question isn't a simple “yes” or “no.”
At nearly two-and-a-half hours in length, The Fabelmans is a collection of hits and misses that ultimately tells us that its main character has had a life-long love of movies, that making films has helped him digest difficult experiences, and (not to be too schmaltzy) that true artists never allow themselves to be dissuaded.
Taken from a script Spielberg co-wrote with Tony Kushner, The Fabelmans probably shouldn't be taken as a definitive version of Spielberg's youthful life. It is, after all, a movie.
The story begins when Sammy Fabelman, the stand-in for Spielberg, is taken by his parents (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) to his first movie. Once inside the theater, young Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) becomes captivated by the train wreck he sees in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth.
Given Spielberg's penchant for on-screen action, it's hardly surprising that his first influence was a devastating train wreck, a sequence Sammy tries to recreate with a toy train he receives as a Hanukah gift. Sammy films the mini-wreck with his dad's camera.
Sammy's early striving serves to introduce one of the movie's major themes: A frustrated concert pianist and a dreamer, Mom encourages Sammy's pursuit of art. Dad, an engineer by trade, takes a far less poetic approach. He wants his son to learn how to make things people can use. He demeans Sammy’s movie obsession by calling it a hobby.
Fortunately for the story, the Fabelmans are a peripatetic lot. The film follows the Fabelman family (Mom, Dad, Sammy, and his three sisters) as they move from New Jersey to Phoenix to Northern California during the 1950s and 1960s.
Surprisingly, at least to me, Sammy (played by Gabriel LaBelle as an older kid) doesn't encounter antisemitism until high school.
The school’s jocks, notably an Aryan-looking popularity king played by Sam Rechner, bully Sammy. One of school's few Jews, Sammy is accused of being a Christ-killer and is humiliated with a schoolyard beating.
Despite such calumnies, Sammy eventually finds a girlfriend (Chloe East), a zealous Christian who, at this point in her life, has conflated her love of Jesus with her emerging sexuality.
The various films that Sammy makes, including a western and a war movie, are among the film's most engaging bits. Sammy develops his directorial chops as he learns about action, editing, and acting. He's his own film school.
Williams' Mitzi anchors the movie's pivotal reveal, which Sammy discovers while reviewing footage he shot during a family camping trip. It's an important insight: Film can record truths that otherwise might remain hidden.
As a woman whose personality embraces playfulness, determination, resolve, and caring, Williams gives the film's most memorable performance. Dano creates a kindly fatherly figure who mostly suffers in silence. Seth Rogen signs on as Benny, Dad’s best friend, a jokester family members call Uncle Benny, even though he’s not related to them
In the middle of all this, Spielberg drops an extended cameo from Judd Hirsch, who plays Uncle Boris, a brother of Sammy's grandmother. Her death prompts Boris's unexpected visit.
Something of a black sheep. Boris seems to have spent his life around the fringes of show business. He sees the artist in Sammy and encourages him (more like tough-love bullying with a Yiddish accent) not to forsake his filmmaking dreams.
I didn't need The Fabelmans to tell me that Spielberg loves movies and the treasured big-screen lineage of which he’s such a vital part.
Moreover, I don't think The Fablemans qualifies as a great coming-of-age movie. It's probably at least 30 minutes too long, it doesn't always display the drive that makes many Spielberg movies irresistible and it can’t help but be a trifle self-serving.
But because Spielberg has had such an important career, the movie probably will generate interest among his admirers. I'm glad I saw The Fabelmans, even though I didn't love it in the way I love Spielberg's best work.
Despite some painful family disclosures, The Fabelmans doesn't feel like a tell-all tale; it’s a story in which a fledgling filmmaker, quickly wins applause. The accolades may be coming from Sammy’s Boy Scout troop, but we know that’s just the beginning of what will be a great career. Sammy will not be dissuaded.
What did you expect? A movie in which a talented kid is condemned to carry the scars of family life into an emotionally wounded and anonymous adulthood?
No way. That could be an Arthur Miller play. Spielberg had other plans.