Steven Spielberg has directed more than his share of great movies. If we were picking the best of the best, most people would probably agree that Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Schindler's List, and Jurassic Park are the essentials. Beyond that, it's fighting territory. Some would argue Saving Private Ryan belongs on that list, or Lincoln, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind. You might even get a few Minority Report defenders in there. Personally, I think Spielberg's latest, The Fabelmans, can go in that category. This semi-autobiographical (actually very autobiographical) work is deeply personal and just as deeply moving.
We first meet Sammy Fabelman as a young boy. His parents, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and Burt (Paul Dano), take him to see his first film, The Greatest Show on Earth. The experience is transformative. Before long, he is playing with an 8mm camera, staging crashes with his toy trains. Then the movie jumps ahead to his teenage years. Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) makes elaborate Western and war movies with his friends. Artistic-minded Mitzi encourages the activity, recognizing her son's creative mind. Burt, a science whiz working on an important advancement in computers, refuses to see it as anything more than a hobby.
Those contrasting parental views are just one of the issues Sammy faces. There are several family moves, thanks to Burt's career ambitions. In California, he deals with antisemitism for the first time. Most staggeringly, his camera inadvertently catches evidence of Mitzi's unhappiness in the marriage. (The scene where he realizes this is powerfully staged by Spielberg, as is the one where he lets her know of the discovery.) Through it all, making movies is the thing that gives him somewhere to put his feelings.
The Fabelmans succeeds, in part, because it's so impeccably cast. Michelle Williams is superb as Mitzi, a free spirit who is as prone to depressive fits as she is to vibrant, bordering on kooky behavior. She's the kind of woman who spontaneously buys a monkey to cheer herself up. Paul Dano is just as good on the opposite end, bringing across Burt's belief that he needs to provide Sammy with a little grounding to balance out the follow-your-dream optimism of his wife. They make the back-and-forth feel true. In the middle is Gabriel LaBelle, perfectly chosen to play the Spielberg stand-in. (He even resembles a young Spielberg.) Over the course of the story, the actor convinces us that Sammy has taken both sides to heart, learning something crucial from each parent.
Appearing in notable supporting roles are Seth Rogen as Burt's best friend Bennie, who perpetually strives to keep Mitzi's spirits high, and Judd Hirsch as Uncle Boris, a Fabelman relative with a few mild Hollywood connections. He imparts blunt wisdom to Sammy at a critical juncture.
If there's a key to The Fabelmans, it's a bit early on where Mitzi observes that her son was mildly traumatized by the train wreck scene in The Greatest Show on Earth. His desire to film his toy trains crashing is an attempt to gain control over the emotions it brought up. That idea of camera-as-therapy recurs multiple times in the picture, paying off beautifully during a scene where Sammy shows his high school class a movie he made of their trip to the beach, only to get an unexpected reaction from one of the kids who bullies him. For Sammy – and, presumably, for Spielberg – making movies is a way to process feelings that can't be properly processed by any other means.
Spielberg wrote the screenplay with Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize winning writer of Angels in America. Together, they shape the director's story into a magnificent piece of confessional fiction. The film is a phenomenal family drama, coming-of-age tale, and celebration of cinema all at once. From the first shot to the last, you can feel Spielberg's heart and soul pouring through. Incidentally, that last shot? It's hands-down the best in any movie this year, a perfect visual summation of what lies ahead for Sammy.
After tackling so many genres and delving into a wide variety of subjects, it feels appropriate for Steven Spielberg to mine his own past. Certainly he has much to say about his cinematic journey. The Fabelmans is dedicated to his mother Leah and father Arnold, and it possesses equal parts compassion and appreciation for them. Without their differing influences, he would not have become the acclaimed filmmaker he is today, and he would not have made this new masterpiece.
The Fabelmans arrives on digital January 17, and on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD February 14. In addition to a digital copy of the movie and the original theatrical trailer, the disc contains the following supplementary material:
The Fabelmans: A Personal Journey - Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner discuss how they tapped into the director's life for the story, working to give it a universal feel while still remaining true to his individual experience. The writing process is explained, and Spielberg talks about why he chose this moment in his career to make such a personal film. The segment runs ten minutes.
Family Dynamics - This 15-minute segment looks at how each actor was chosen to play someone from Spielberg's life. Michelle Williams and Paul Dano reveal how they interpreted his parents from home movies they were provided with. Most interestingly, Spielberg talks about the difficulty of figuring out who should play his surrogate, as it required a little soul-searching to identify the most important traits of his own personality. You get a much better exploration of the casting process in this section than you do in most Blu-ray features on the subject.
Crafting the World of The Fabelmans - This is a traditional making-of documentary that runs 25 minutes and goes into everything from the production design to the cinematography to the music. Because it's so detailed, you receive a comprehensive look at how the time period was captured, but also how the lives of the characters were conveyed through all the little choices that went into the movie's style. What stands out here, as with all Spielberg films, is that attention to minor details is just as important as the “big” stuff.
The Fabelmans is a brilliant work from a master director, and the special features on this Blu-ray nicely provide insight onto how Spielberg told his own story.
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out of four
The Fabelmans is rated PG-13 for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence, and drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 31 minutes.