Steven Spielberg is our maestro of commercial cinematic trauma. Ever since the staggeringly simple highway nightmare and TV movie phenomenon “Duel” (1971), he has made anxiety — his own and others’ — into an idealized vision of the human experience and its attendant fantasies and nightmares.
The theater seats clutched for dear life during “Jaws”; the tears shed at the end of “E.T.”; the larger 20th-century canvas of genocide and the slaughter of war in “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan”: In wildly varying registers of escapism and seriousness, Spielberg has grabbed a worldwide audience and held it in his grip. Now, with “The Fabelmans,” he has gone back to the boy with the movie camera he once was.
Cowritten by Spielberg and his frequent late-period collaborator, Tony Kushner (“Lincoln,” “West Side Story”), “The Fabelmans” dramatizes an episodic, often beguiling version of young Spielberg’s life, from childhood to adolescence to the cusp of adulthood. Covering roughly 12 years, the semi-autobiographical picture begins with the moment in 1952 when his being was reconstituted forever by a family outing to Cecil B. DeMille’s circus melodrama “The Greatest Show on Earth.” It ends sometime around 1963 or 1964 with a brief encounter between teenage Spielberg and the legendary director John Ford.
That, and more, comes from real life. But much of “The Fabelmans” — it’s there in the title — veers, freely, into the reinvention of experiences, feelings, terrors, rage, joys, resentments and, to borrow a phrase from Kushner’s play “Angels in America,” the thresholds of revelation that made the boy the man.
The result is a teeming paradox. The movie, at once obviously personal and a little dodgy in its honeyed glow and sheen, represents something quite new for the filmmaker in terms of narrative. Here, the focus is Spielberg’s many geographical relocations in childhood, and the eventual divorce of his loving but mismatched parents. He’s a long way, in other words, from the usual aliens and monsters and metaphoric families made on the fly, in the face of external crisis.
Today, “The Greatest Show on Earth” is remembered for two things. It won the Oscar for best picture of 1952, one of the lamer picks in awards history. And it’s remembered for the train wreck sequence, which scared the hell out of me as a kid watching the movie on television, just as (slightly more pertinent to global popular culture) it freaked out young Spielberg.
In “The Fabelmans,” Sammy Fabelman is split into two actors, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord in the earlier scenes, Gabriel LaBelle for the teenage edition. In the exquisite opening minutes, Sammy, his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and his father Burt (Paul Dano) drive home to New Jersey after the movie, Sammy’s eyes in perma-wide fear of what he’s just witnessed on a very large screen.
Right away Sammy gets to work on dispelling and reframing his demons, and soon he’s filming his own miniature train wrecks in the basement, trying to get the moment when the convertible gets creamed by the oncoming locomotive just right. Spielberg’s father worked for RCA and General Electric; Dano’s Burt Fabelman exemplifies even-tempered, rational belief in scientific principle and innovation, while Williams’ Mitzi Fabelman embodies the messy, passionate pursuit of the arts, largely thwarted.
She’s a pianist as well as a trained dancer. In a key sequence, the Fabelman family — parents, son, three daughters, plus the conspicuous presence of a dear family friend, “Uncle” Bennie, played by Seth Rogen — take a camping trip together. At one point, after Sammy has discovered the reason his parents have been growing apart, Mitzi dances alone at night, spot-lit by the family car’s headlights. This scene, I think, shows us how Spielberg wants to remember what did (or didn’t) actually happen. It’s full-bore visual rhapsody rather than what you might call emotional realism. In other words, it’s what Spielberg loves best, sometimes at the cost of crowding the audience’s own emotional response to what’s happening in the story.
I can’t get to this next sentence quickly enough. When Spielberg’s instincts are at their best, the fable-making and visual gorgeousness and rightness of the film craft are the best we have. Little and big things in “The Fabelmans” click into place, from the glorious re-creations of his early moviemaking efforts (a WWII movie in the desert, with stunningly good homemade special effects) to the scenes between Williams and Dano, and Williams and the older Sammy, played by LaBelle. Spielberg was no saint as a kid, tormenting his sisters and repressing a considerable amount of pain. The movie has no obligation to include all the worst details of his being bullied by anti-Semitic kids; the Joseph McBride biography of Spielberg includes accounts of swastikas on the sidewalk, and worse.
As the Fabelman family moves from Arizona to California, Sammy’s teen years become a kind of epic battle of wills between himself and a threatening collection of big, blond, Christian boys and girls who do not want a Jew around, or at least don’t want the hassle of any sort of otherness to intrude on their lives. This part of the picture is particularly hard to watch, rightly so, and offers some of its most astringent and honest exchanges.
Judd Hirsch, who pops up as Uncle Boris, delivered the showiest material of Kushner’s and Spielberg’s rather blunt explication of the plight of the artist in society. Jeannie Berlin is a note-perfect, one-woman chorus of disapproval as grandma Fabelman (though I wish she had a scene like Hirsch’s to relish, instead of making do on the sidelines). Many of Spielberg’s longtime colleagues return on “The Fabelmans,” such as composer John Williams — scoring a bit, here and there, in between a larger-than-usual amount of preexisting songs and film music — and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. The latter’s penchant for pearly white light and meticulous, not-quite-real imagery is evident even in the nocturnal camping scene, where Sammy complains about it being too dark to film his mother. Not with Kaminski on the job, it isn’t!
I don’t know if there’s a big audience for “The Fabelmans, or not, and I don’t care. I suppose I hope so. The disarming comic coda sent me out on a high, just as it sends the Spielbergian Fabelman out on a high, striding toward his future. I’m eager to see it a second time, not so much for the Big Moments, but for the peerlessly judged composition and flow and, yes, the feeling in the smaller, messier ones. This filmmaker has earned the right to make a movie about why he makes movies the way he does. And with Williams and Dano, especially, he gets performances that can match the technique.
‘The Fabelmans’ — 3.5 stars (out of 4)
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MPA rating: PG-13 (for some strong language, thematic elements, brief violence and drug use)
Running time: 2:31
How to watch: Premieres in theaters Nov. 23.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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