‘The Fabelmans’ is Spielberg’s Most Personal Film, But is It Among His Best?



Gabrielle LaBelle as Sammy Fabelman, the Steven Spielberg stand-in, in ‘The Fabelmans.’

Since I was seven, my answer to the classic “Who’s your hero?” question has always been the same: Steven Spielberg. I have no idea why. I don’t believe I had seen anything besides ET and maybe Raiders of the Lost Ark when I was that age. But for seven-year-old me, and even for sixteen-year-old me, it seems like that was enough. I was one of the millions of children who were affected by the filmmaking of Spielberg. And now, Spielberg has made his thesis statement on that art.

“Family, art, it’ll tear you in two,” says Judd Hirsch’s Uncle Boris during an impassioned speech to his nephew Sammy Fabelman. The scene, set in the second act, is the skeleton key to Steven Spielbeg’s latest film, The Fabelmans. Through Spielberg’s entire career, his films have reflected the tenuous connection between connecting with family and pursuing passion. Whether it be Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s Roy Neary abandoning his family to venture the cosmos with aliens, or Frank Abagnale Jr. using his last moments of freedom to see his estranged mother one more time in Catch Me If You Can, the ever-changing status of the relationship between Spielberg and his loved ones is apparent. But never have these bonds been more showcased than in The Fabelmans, Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical drama which was released on VOD on December 13th. 

As one of the premier Best Picture frontrunners since April, and as a Steven Spielberg film, The Fabelmans had high expectations to live up to. Thankfully, it has managed to fulfill these high standards and stand out as one of the best movies of 2022. It works as a quasi-biopic of Spielberg, showing the origins of some of his great stylistic choices (there are notable references to War of the Worlds, ET, and Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade). It works as a domestic drama and as a coming-of-age story, thanks to a smart script co-written by Spielberg and Tony Kushner and some great performances from Michelle Williams, as Sammy Fabelman’s mother Mitzi, and Gabrielle LaBelle, as Fabelman himself. 

But the level on which The Fabelmans finds the most success is as a love letter to cinema itself. Many recent movies, such as the Star Wars sequel trilogy, are almost too reverent to the classic movies that preceded them. The Fablemans captures the delicate balance with all of its adoration for classic films like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance never feeling like the admiration comes from somewhere besides a genuine appreciation for the history of films and filmmaking. This is compounded by the appearance of Mulholland Drive-filmmaker David Lynch as legendary Hollywood director John Ford. This scene is one of the best in the movie, and despite its comical approach, is never mocking Ford’s sensibilities. Spielberg, as shown in the following scene, is still learning from Ford, and encouraging the aspiring filmmakers in the audience to do the same.

As mentioned earlier, The Fabelmans is a wonderfully acted film. Michelle Williams will likely garner an Oscar nomination for her role, and it is well deserved. Even though her character, performed by a lesser actor, could be reduced to someone completely unsympathetic, Williams makes Mitzi Fabelman someone who the audience wants to root for. The key example of this is a scene near the beginning, when she watches young Sammy Fabelman’s first attempt to make a short film. Williams’ performance establishes that no matter her behavior, she always wishes the best for Sammy and for the rest of this family. Gabrielle LaBelle, who plays Sammy Fabelman, is also superb. This is only his fourth movie, and his first leading role in a major movie, but he manages to steal the show even when up against award winning actors like Paul Dano. He especially shines during a scene with a confrontation against a high school bully, in which he remarks that he will “never make a movie about this.”

The entire Fabelman family, including Mitzi (played by Michelle Williams) and Burt (played by Paul Dano.) (canburak)

While the direction, script, and acting are the most accomplished parts of the film, it’s important to note that The Fabelmans is no slouch when it comes to its technical aspects. Janusz Kamiński, who has shot every Spielberg film since 1993’s Schindler’s List, gives the entire film a dreamy quality that highlights the fact that the movie is composed of somewhat hazy memories. He also alludes to previous films he shot, such as West Side Story and War of the Worlds, without recreating them shot-for-shot. John Williams’ score, which is the penultimate work of his career, may not live up to the epic heights of previous soundtracks like “The Raiders March” but still proves an effective backdrop to the domestic quarrels that don’t really need an extravagant composition. Editor Michael Kahn, another frequent Spielberg collaborator, makes a two-and-a-half-hour film go by quickly, a tough feat for a ‘non-popcorn’ movie. While the craft of this film may not impress on a Raiders of the Lost Ark level, it certainly doesn’t distract from the more notable facets of the film.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Spielberg’s movies have had a hold on me from a young age. Since then I’ve seen many more of his movies, some that would have terrified or completely bored seven-year-old me (or even bored teenage me, looking at you, The Adventures of Tintin). Jurassic Park and Jaws have both been (or currently are) in my four favorites. He has three other films in my top 15. I can now recognize how his movies work thematically, or the revolutionary technical aspects, or how his work with child actors is leagues ahead of anyone else. But I’m not sure that even matters with Spielberg. No other director meant as much to me at any point, even ones who are more thematically complex, or created more revolutionary filmmaking styles, or even ones whose films I like more. So why should they get more credit? At its heart, The Fabelmans is a movie about the man who inspired me and countless others to love movies. It’s a full circle moment that definitely deserves: