Cian Geoghegan delves into Steven Spielberg’s personal drama.
The new film from Steven Spielberg, inarguably the most populist, mainstream filmmaker in the history of the medium, occupies a bizarre middle-space in the public sphere. Its autobiographical content, sure to be misconstrued as navel-gazing by cynical punters, locks it out from the maximal appeal of the director’s parade of hits. On the other hand, the blistering earnestness of all things Spielberg is out of step with the contemporary arthouse. This is a real shame, as those who overlook the film for its perceived pretensions stand to miss a delightful crowd-pleaser, just as those who turn their nose up at its sappiness will miss a surprisingly scathing, self-critical portrait of the relentless creative.
We meet the seven-year-old Sammy Fabelman outside a movie theatre screening Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Terrified by rumours of scares and giant men behind the screen, his parents coax him inside with their own comforts – his father, Burt (Paul Dano), offers a scientific explanation of projection and the illusion of movement, while his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) makes an artistic case for the beauty and thrill of the celluloid rollercoaster.
This sets the stage well for Sammy’s coming-of-age story, which involves a passion for homemade movies with diverging support from his parents. The engineer father considers Sammy’s filmmaking a hobby but supports it on those terms. His pianist mother tries to teach him that what is useful for society is not exclusively that which has a concrete ‘use’. Art and expression are useful in themselves. These are standard dynamics, clichés even, in creative households. Where Spielberg uncovers true thematic depth is in the dissolution of the marriage, and the family unit. On a camping trip, teenage Sammy’s all-seeing camera eye uncovers a tenderness between his mother and Bennie (Seth Rogen), Burt’s business partner and a close family friend. Sitting on difficult truths, Sammy lets his frustration boil until he finally shows his camping film to his mother, edited to show each and every touch and glance between the adulterers.
The whole ordeal is so cruel – Spielberg’s self-insert character forces his mother to watch her shameful, private moments projected back at her. When she emerges from the screening closet in tears, Sammy rushes to comfort her. There is a revelation here of the power of the filmmaker, their ability to play with the lives of their subjects beyond the screen. Sammy Fableman’s infatuation with image-making is not purely sweet and nostalgic. In many ways, it reflects an inability to engage directly with other people, even those closest to him. For this obsessive artist, people can only be understood when mediated.
Indeed, where Burt and Mitzi finally announce their divorce to their children, Sammy sits off to the side, watching from the staircase. He has known the longest about their marital dysfunction, but when crossing this bitter threshold, he is silent. We see, from his point-of-view, the angry tears of his younger sisters, the apologetic aphorisms of the parents. Sammy observes them as if from a dolly shot. His now-cemented role as the filmmaker leaves him unable to engage, comfort or find solidarity with any party involved. This bittersweet (or maybe just bitter) depiction of Spielberg’s approach to craft is ardently transgressive, albeit packaged within the genre tropes of a coming-of-age story.
Despite these heavy moments, Spielberg still walks a tonal tightrope in keeping the film entertaining. Sammy’s domestic chaos fights for attention with his erratic school life, where Sammy faces the wrath of bullies and the mystery of girls. The scenes outside of Sammy’s home almost feel like a different film, but there is a subtext carried throughout of one-sided relationships and the transformational power of the camera.
The film also finds levity by almost winking to the viewer – despite all the solemnity of John Williams’ piano score, the film is a self-aware self-portrait. Dano and Rogen play off each other well, and the film is full of the kinds of unique idiosyncrasies that you could only pull from memoir (look out for a pet monkey). Comparisons could be drawn to Scorsese’s The Irishman as another example of late style which is at once melancholic and blisteringly funny. With The Fabelmans, Spielberg offers up a life story that is tender and brutally honest. He depicts the inner world of the creative in a way I haven’t quite seen before – creative work is at once the purest bliss one can find, and the poison that can bleed into the cracks of your soul, drowning out everything else. The Fabelmans is at-once a crowd-pleaser and an art film, each operating at its highest level, a dichotomy I doubted even Spielberg could balance.
The Fabelmans is in cinemas from 23rd January 2023.