The Fabelmans

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If you can take a guy who punched you in the nose and make him look like a hero in a movie, the sky’s the limit. That’s the implication of the last act of Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, which tells a lightly fictionalized version of the story of young Spielberg as he gains a passion for movies — watching them and then making them. Here, Spielberg addresses an event that brought him and his siblings great pain at the time, his parents’ separation when Spielberg was 19, and sees it with enough distance to allow both parents humanity. He has made a memoir filled with compassion for everyone except, maybe, for an antisemitic kid who bullies Spielberg’s young avatar Sam Fabelman.

Sam (Gabriel LaBelle) gets the filmmaking bug when a trainwreck in The Greatest Show on Earth scares him. It’s fair to say Sam chases that emotional dragon — trying to recreate for his audiences that same sense of awe and fear — for the rest of his life; he asks for a train set so he can recreate the train crash and feel some control over it. That’s the diagnosis of his free-spirited mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams), a concert pianist. Like Spielberg, Sam partially takes after his mother — the creative part — and partially after his father, Burt (Paul Dano), an engineer — the technical, how-do-things-work part, the nuts and bolts of what gets a film in the can. Mitzi lends Sam his father’s camera so he can film the mini-crash once and just watch it over and over instead of doing it over and over. A director is born.

If Spielberg had attempted to make The Fabelmans at his manipulative-sentimental peak in the ‘80s, it would probably have been disastrous. His parents would still have been alive, and a concern over hurting their feelings held him back for decades. The way Spielberg portrays his parents now is far from unflattering or warts-and-all, but it’s not adulatory either; he gives them their due as human beings trying like hell to be good spouses and parents. There’s nothing like the shrill discord between Richard Dreyfuss and Teri Garr in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which one parent has to leave the family to follow happiness. But a man in his thirties directed that, and a man in his seventies has directed The Fabelmans, which allows that the frequently suggested path of seeking one’s bliss, whatever that might do to one’s relationships, is not easy.

Spielberg gives us a few fun, amusing montages showing young Sam making westerns or war pictures, but they don’t seem central. The Fabelmans uses the filmmaking sequences to bring out the theme of compassion through one’s art, and that isn’t confined to movies. Spielberg’s handling of the kid who punches Sam is interesting and worth discussing. Filming his senior class’ “ditch day” at the beach, Sam could easily make the kid look foolish, but instead the camera lingers on the kid’s shirtless virtuosity at the volleyball net. After the movie screens for the class, the kid, upset, doesn’t understand why Sam filmed him so iconically. Sam doesn’t either. Sometimes the camera knows what it likes, and sometimes it likes bullies. The script by Spielberg and Tony Kushner has these sorts of ambiguities running all through it.

Spielberg’s direction is clean and free of unnecessary motion. He takes a page from John Ford (wonderfully embodied here by David Lynch), who crustily advises young Sam to pay attention to the horizon in his shots. The horizon’s placement, as the director of The Searchers knew, can lock in a thousand words in one image, and Spielberg does likewise here. In The Searchers, the famous last shot contains John Wayne in a narrow frame formed by a doorway and the horizon, suggesting his character’s ethos is better off boxed up or buried. Spielberg turns the horizon into a quick visual joke that nonetheless tilts up to offer Sam the sky and all its limits. It’s a generous, smoothly rendered work, among Spielberg’s best.

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