Every movie buff has an origin story; the moment they realized the awesome power and alchemical magic of cinema. The Fabelmans begins with Steven Spielberg. Steven – Sammy in the movie – is taken by his parents on his first trip to the movies, where they watch Cecil B. DeMille The greatest show on Earth. A nervous Sammy watches in horror, then gaping in fascination, as two circus trains collide. In the eyes of the adults of 2022, the collision effects are crude and the illusion is fragile. For Sammy in 1952, it really is the greatest show on Earth.
On the way home, Sammy’s parents wonder if the movie was too scary for him. Sammy says nothing and that night he goes to bed dreaming about trains. Then Spielberg – the director presenting these scenes, not the little boy on screen – smashes cuts to Sammy screaming for his mother at the top of his voice. We suppose The greatest show on earth gave Sammy the greatest nightmare on Earth. No. Sammy is hot, jumps into bed. He knows what he wants for Hanukkah: a train. He recreates the scene of the accident of The greatest show on earth with his train over and over until his mother gave him the family 8mm camera to shoot his own version of the footage. She thinks it will slip her mind, or at least encourage her to stop breaking this very expensive toy.
Not enough. Instead, Sammy transferred his interest from the train to the camera. Once he did, he never let go. And what is most impressive The Fabelmans is you can tell that some 70 years later, the real Steven Spielberg remains just as enamored with movies. He has learned a lot about how to make them since 1952; how to use image and sound to bring people joy, empathy, terror and understanding. But he never lost sight of the why.
The Fabelmans – this name was certainly not chosen at random – follows Sammy from his tender age when he discovered the films (where he is played by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) until his adolescence (when he transforms into Gabriel LaBelle ). As Sammy’s interest in film blossoms, his parents’ marriage slowly dissolves. The film doesn’t have a bigger story than that, and it doesn’t need one either, because Spielberg observes and documents the Fabelmans’ lives with such warmth and clarity. Through Sammy’s eyes (and often the lens of his camera), we observe the love, but also the distance, between his mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) and his father Burt (Paul Dano).
This very first scene The greatest show on earth establishes their complex dynamics. Spielberg frames his parents’ online pep talk outdoors The The Greatest Show on Earth with Sammy wedged between Burt on the left and Mitzi on the right. Burt is left-brained pragmatism. Like Spielberg’s real father, he is a pioneer in the field of computing. He calms a nervous Sammy about his first movie experience by explaining to him how a movie projector works. Mitzi is a right-brained fantasy. She is an adventurous and free-spirited artist; she tells Sammy not to worry because the movies are dreams.
The footage outside this theater is one of many examples in The Fabelmans where Spielberg merges his memories (which were compiled into a screenplay by Spielberg and Tony Kushner) and his uncanny talent for movement and camera framing to explore how our formative years are shaped by forces and choices that are outside out of our control and often beyond our understanding. If Sammy had seen another movie that day instead of The greatest show on earth, would he have loved it so much? If his parents hadn’t moved across the country so often, and if Sammy had had an easier time fitting in, would he have been so strongly drawn to movies as a means of connection? Has making films brought Sammy closer to the people around him, or has it kept him at a distance from them, always observing, rarely participating?
The Fabelmans finds Spielberg ruminating on these and more important questions, including some about his own childhood. At least in Spielberg’s account, his parents rarely argued, but also rarely bonded with each other in any meaningful way. Burt is still working; when he is home, he often scolds Sammy about his burgeoning obsession with his “hobby” as a director. Mitzi nurtures Sammy’s creativity and has a curiously affectionate relationship with the man Sammy and his three sisters call their “uncle” – Burt’s best friend and business partner, Bennie (Seth Rogen), who follows the family on their move from New Jersey to Phoenix, mainly because Mitzi urges Burt to find a place for Bennie in his new job in Arizona.
All the actors are sensational in these roles. Dano plays Burt as such a tense and serious dweeb, it’s easy to see why a kid like Spielberg would gravitate towards his mother and away from his father, even if Dano too finds many places to show Burt’s total love and devotion to Sammy and the rest of the family. And Williams brings incredibly believable physicality to Mitzi; the way she moves her arms as she spins around the Fabelman kitchen, or watches in dumb amazement one of Sammy’s 8mm films, feels so lived-in and authentic. And LaBelle shows impressive range as teenage Sammy, as his story swings between tragedy and comedy.
There are also other wonderful supporting turns, including Jeannie Berlin as a classic Jewish grandmother and Judd Hirsch as Mitzi’s Uncle Boris, who lived the life of a visiting artist – he claims having worked in the circus and in Hollywood – and who one day shows up at the Fabelmans’ doorstep for a surprise visit. He delivers a monologue to Sammy that illuminates all of the film’s ideas about art and life – how the latter is impossible without the former and how the former can make the latter impossible.
Spielberg once said that his original concept for HEY “did not include an extraterrestrial. It was going to be about how a divorce affects childhood, and how it really traumatizes kids. So the main theme was going to be how to fill the heart of a lonely child. With The FabelmansSpielberg basically made his alien HEY Instead of an adorable little creature, Sammy discovers the cinema. (He even looks at some of them in his bedroom closet, where ET was known to hide from Elliott’s mother.) And The Fabelmans is littered with small references and homages to Spielberg’s past films, as well as the history of cinema at large. Few years later The greatest show on earthSammy goes to see John Ford The man who shot Liberty Valancewhich includes the famous line “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
East The Fabelmans fact or legend? I suspect it’s a bit of both. Beyond the inclusion of Liberty Valance, Spielberg openly encourages the viewer to question his depiction of these events, the most interesting being a confrontation between Sammy and a high school bully who Sammy portrayed in one of his movies in a way they both know be inaccurate. They have a surprising conversation where they struggle to express how they feel for each other and debate how life is like the movies, and vice versa.
Steven Spielberg is 75 years old today. Both of her parents have died within the past five years. His longtime collaborators aren’t spring chickens either. Composer John Williams is 90; editor Michael Kahn is 91 years old. The art of cinema is even older and sometimes seems in very bad shape. I hope Spielberg will make another 20 films. But if it’s the last he’s ever done, it would be the perfect career crowning achievement: An origin story, a thesis statement, a love letter, and a cautionary tale. Like life, it is hilarious at times and pitifully sad at others. From the first scene to the last, I was leaning forward in my seat like Sammy Fabelman at The greatest show on Earth.