It is common practice for an artist nearing the end of their career to use their medium to reflect on their work and life, often how they came to their practise in the first place - an origin story for who they are as an artist and as a human being, and how the two are inextricably linked. Cinema is particularly potent for such an exercise because it engages many of the same qualities as memory. When we reflect on a moment in our past, it replays as a series of images and sounds, reconstructing what we remember into a subjective narrative. Constructing a film from the realisation of these images and sounds is the closest we can get to letting someone else into our memories, but it's also a way of preserving them, of planting a camera in the position we choose and trying to replicate the ethereal ghosts flashing across the backs of our eyes.
The fundamental question with such a film is: why should we care? Why should an audience devote time and money to viewing the recreated memories of another person, often someone in a position of privilege that allows them the means to do this in the first place? There are many examples of this process working to our advantage. Bob Fosse's 'All That Jazz' (1979) finds Fosse lacerating himself for his mistakes, not just as an act of self-destruction but as a warning to us of, perhaps, the dangers of obsession. Alfonso Cuarón's 'Roma' (2018) questions the forces that shape a child's perception of the world, and the specificity of his recreated experience allow us to access it and find our own place in it. And this year, Charlotte Wells' 'Aftersun' functions as investigation, putting the puzzle pieces together to see if there was something she could have done to prevent the inevitable.
There are, of course, examples that don't work, acts of self-indulgence that offer nothing to an audience and simply serve the needs of the artist. I would put Kenneth Branagh's 'Belfast' (2021) in that category. Our presence is secondary to the needs of the artist, and though Fosse, Cuaron and Wells are all exorcising something with their films, they still place our needs first. There's also the risk of the film falling into the trap of celebrating "the magic of the movies", another tricky genre to pull off that often feels self-serving. The artist in question here is a filmmaker, and so it stands to reason that their film will address, in some respect, their discovery of the medium. This is difficult enough a gambit to pull off as it is, especially with the degree that Hollywood cinema loves films about itself. Combining autobiography with a celebration of cinema just adds to the risk.
This brings us to 'The Fabelmans', the latest film from legendary filmmaker Steven Spielberg, who after 50 years of practice has turned the camera piercingly on himself. One could argue that the risk of failure here is greater than most, the potential for self-aggrandising naval-gazing indulgence from the most famous filmmaker of all time. One could also argue the process redundant, since Spielberg has been exploring the traumas of his childhood over and over again in many of his greatest films. We've seen him muse over the divorce of his parents Arnold and Leah Spielberg before, from 'ET The Extra Terrestrial' (1982) to 'Catch Me If You Can' (2002), so what ground could he possibly have to cover? And considering the expert way he has wielded sentimentality in the past, how saccharine could his cinematic origin story be? Hasn't he said all this already?
There is a reason though why Spielberg is considered one of the greatest artists this medium has seen, and it has nothing to do with his technical wizardry or boundless imagination. At the foundation of all his work - whether science fiction or magic realism or startling historical recreation - is a commitment to truth, in particular emotional truth. Even at his most sentimental, there is a persistent brutality, a refusal to say anything to his audience that he doesn't believe in and doesn't think is important. It's part of the magnificent mess of his practice, and I think the reason, deep down, why we love him so much. The blocking, the images, the energy are all in service of the truth he needs to pursue. It should come as no surprise then that, when he finally turns the camera on himself, with no folderol to distract, the images he captures should be uncompromising, brutal, exhilarating, devastating, inspiring and honest, just as much for us as they are for him.
'THE FABELMANS' TRAILER
In the opening sequence of 'The Fabelmans', we see Spielberg's cypher Sam Fabelman as a small child in 1952 (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) being taken to the cinema for the first time by his parents Mitzi (Michelle Williams, 'Blue Valentine') and Burt (Paul Dano, 'There Will Be Blood'). Just like Spielberg, Sammy's first film will be Cecil B. DeMille's circus epic 'The Greatest Show on Earth', and what we expect, thanks to filmmakers like Branagh, is that he will sit in the dark, his eyes will go wide with wonder and he'll walk out demanding his parents buy him a camera. But this isn't what happens. As Sammy watches in the dark, the visceral train crash sequence in the film burns itself into his brain, igniting feelings he doesn't understand. He leaves the cinema unable to talk, his young brain working overtime to comprehend what he has seen (I remember having the same response at 11 when I saw 'Titanic' for the first time). Spielberg's origin story isn't about being dazzled but about being haunted, and when the camera eventually does land in his hands, its function is not as a means of expression but as a means of exorcism, to take that train crash which has unsettled his little soul and make it physical, make it comprehensible, give him control of it - rip it from his brain and render it as colour and light in order to understand what it has done to him... exactly what we are watching Steven Spielberg do in the act of making 'The Fabelmans'.
This is the fundamental principle at the heart of the film, and what ultimately makes it such a shattering, overwhelming and breathtaking experience. 'The Fabelmans' is not concerned with the magic of cinema but with the power of cinema, of the impact it is capable of having on those that view the 24 frames per second, for better and for worse. Sam's transition from an unsettled child to a persistent, obsessed teenager (Gabriel LaBelle) is that of realising the power this camera gives him, and how easily it can be a means for entertainment and healing as well as a weapon of destruction and damage. Spielberg and co-writer Tony Kushner (who, as well as writing 'Munich' (2005), 'Lincoln' (2012) and 'West Side Story' (2021) for Spielberg, wrote the theatrical masterpiece 'Angels in America') use this as the thread to link the episodes of his childhood and teenage years together; filmmaking becoming escape, expression, catalyst and armament.
Sam's development as a young filmmaker plays secondary to the central drama of 'The Fabelmans', that being the achingly slow deterioration of the Fabelman family. Mitzi and Burt are a perfect mismatch, he a brilliant pioneering computer engineer and she a gifted free-spirited pianist. They love these qualities in one another, both combined and perfected in Sam, but what runs underneath is the eternal battle, that between logic and artistic expression. For the most part, Sam and his three younger sisters only see this deterioration in flashes, too obscure to understand, but as Sam's eyes widen and he begins to see the full image of what makes up the Fabelmans, his storytellers eye begins to see things he wishes he never had, becoming privy to a secret that shatters his entire world. Spielberg has always been open about his parent's divorce, how his mother left his father for his father's best friend, in the film recreated as Bennie (Seth Rogen, 'Steve Jobs'), but what 'The Fabelmans' reveals is the means of its discovery, its cataclysmic impact on him as a teenager and, perhaps most overwhelming of all, how the act of making a movie is so intrinsically linked to this.
Again though, this isn't just Spielberg exorcising his demons. 'The Fabelmans' acts as a primer for understanding how he feels about the power and responsibility of being a filmmaker, and the lessons he was forced to learn in conjunction with that growing passion. Each sequence where Sam screens his films is a complex text to decode, sometimes so much so that you're left (intentionally) scratching your head. Sam isn't watching the screen but watching his audience, trying to gauge their reactions, fascinated by the minutia of their responses, perhaps even fascinated by the power he is wielding with the most basic of filmmaking tricks. Art often becomes a means to make sense of the world, and we know that, for Spielberg, this is what his art would become. But in this period, it's almost a series of social experiments. Sam is asking, if I put this image against this one, what will happen? Sometimes the result is applause and encouragement. Sometimes it's confusion and chaos. And sometimes it borders on annihilation.
There is plenty of sentimentality and levity, the beloved sparkle of the Spielbergian magic, but nothing is ever frivolous. There's so much care and consideration in this film, beautifully direct and unadorned.
Watching 'The Fabelmans' is an emotionally wrought experience in the best possible way, the pulls of its many tensions holding you in its grasp and tugging every heart string you have. It's a slow build towards its major sequences, but Spielberg and Kushner are careful in constructing that build. There is plenty of sentimentality and levity, the beloved sparkle of the Spielbergian magic, but nothing is ever frivolous. There's so much care and consideration in this film, beautifully direct and unadorned. Spielberg almost blew the screen apart with his jaw-dropping imagination and energy with 'West Side Story', but here the camera stays close, capturing every complicated emotion, refusing to pull back or look away at the moments of heartbreak. His eye is fixed on unpacking what he sees as he brings these memories to life, but we sit just behind him, looking over his shoulder, seeing ourselves in Sam as much as he does.
The delicacy of the film extends into each of its extraordinary performances. Both Paul Dano and Michelle Williams embrace the grey complexities of Burt and Mitzi, him with a quiet patience threatening to crack, and her with a sense of emotional freedom on the verge of spinning out of control. The Fabelman family unit (which for the most part includes Bennie) feels hermetically sealed, and the sense you get from Williams in particular is a woman running out of air while her husband is blissfully unaware. There is no judgement from Spielberg or the two actors, the aim being to speak to the complex truth of adult relationships. The same can be said of Seth Rogan as Bennie, entirely loveable and sympathetic despite his complicity in the destruction of this family he adores. And at the centre of this is the wonderful Gabriel LaBelle as Sam, somehow balancing the complex emotional arc of the character with the inevitable task of acting as cypher for Steven Spielberg. Sam's journey (and ultimately the journey of any child whose family breaks around them) is realising that these problems are not a reflection on his worth to his parents, and also understanding them as fallible, as human beings. The tragedy is the means through which he starts this journey, where the most precious thing in the world to him delivers the killing blow to his childhood.
This notion forms the basis for one of the most extraordinary scenes in 'The Fabelmans', where the family is visited by Mitzi's mysterious Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch, 'Uncut Gems'), who had been absent from the family working in filmmaking and in the circus. In a monologue for the ages, Boris explains to Sam the truth about being an artist, that your art will always ask more of you than you can bear and will always inevitably break your heart. "Family, art," he says, "it will tear you in two." It's the truth about being an artist that every artist knows but is almost impossible to understand from the outside, the small sacrifices it will demand at every turn of your life, and the scar tissue that will build and build with each sacrifice. The miracle of 'The Fabelmans' is that Spielberg offers a startling and honest portrait of this sacrifice in action, of the pain art can cause the creator and those around them but that the need is always there, gnawing away, demanding to be satisfied.
All the points I've discussed so far barely even scratches the surface. The thematic and emotional reach of this film is staggering, as are its endless observations on family, identity and expression. There's the role of Judaism in shaping Sam as a person and as a filmmaker, the way racism batters its way into his life in direct and indirect ways. There's the relationship between art and mental health, how the one can begin as a cover for the other, as well as how a child navigates a parent with mental illness. And then there's the glorious final scene, where Sam is gruffly handed the practical final key he needs to reach for the stars and become the artist we know he is going to be. Spielberg and Kushner, and all of the artists who contributed to this extraordinary film, have packed so much into it, so much so that my head and heart were still spinning for days afterwards. This is the richest of texts, so much more than someone ruminating on their childhood. This is a dissection, precise and uncompromising, and the specificity in its details invites us to dissect our own. Even while watching it, I reflected on my own development as an artist, what experiences and events have shaped me, and most potent of all, how intrinsic my family have been to that process. In that sense, 'The Fabelmans' feels like a gift to its audience.
Weeks after seeing it, I can't shake this film. I cried through almost every minute of it and most of the walk home afterwards, overwhelmed by its humanity and generosity and care, and devastated by its honesty and heartbreak and sadness. On one level, I was responding to a beautifully constructed and delicately made piece of storytelling that speaks to so many aspects of the human experience we either try to ignore or are afraid to speak about. On another level though, it invited me to reflect on an artist who has shaped the very fabric of the world we live in. I love Spielberg's films more than I can ever put into words; they inspire me and thrill me and help the chaos of this world make a little more sense. And here, in 'The Fabelmans', is this artist who means so much to so many of us reflecting on how he became that artist, revealing the secrets and memories that have driven some of the greatest films ever made. Never has his communion with us felt more intimate, more personal and more necessary.
'The Fabelmans' is as extraordinary as my absurdly high expectations had hoped; a magnificent portrait of what it is to be a son, a brother and an artist, and of the responsibilities that come with each. It lays bare the true power of the art we create, the way it shapes the way we understand and interact with the world. It is a staggering achievement from a filmmaker responsible for endless staggering achievements, but this might be one of his most extraordinary. I could not have loved this film more if I tried. With 'The Fabelmans', Steven Spielberg has delivered yet another masterpiece and the best film of the year.