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Steven Spielberg Prints the Legend

The master director’s essayistic, autobiographical film ‘The Fabelmans’ may be little more than a victory lap. Still, no one sees things quite like he can.

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

“Mommy and Daddy will be with you the entire time.” So begins Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical fantasia The Fabelmans, with 7-year-old Sammy (Mateo Zoryna Francis-Deford) taking in 1952’s Best Picture–winning circus drama The Greatest Show on Earth with his parents. Waiting in line with their wide-eyed son, Burt and Mitzi Fabelman (Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) each try in their own way to quell his obvious anxiety: dad by deconstructing the whirring, moving parts of of the projector, mom by explaining that what they’re about to see will be like a dream. Somewhere between these two points—one precisely technical, one sweetly ephemeral, and both, in their way, deeply mysterious—lies the miraculous truth of moviegoing, as well as moviemaking: a craft that’s also a form of sorcery, an art that’s also a science.

As Sammy grows up and into his own protean directorial talent, he will move from the backyard to the backlot. But as he does, the memory of that first fateful screening—sandwiched between the ones who love him most and held captive by the light—is never far from his mind’s eye.

Everybody has to start somewhere, and The Fabelmans, which premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, returns the most successful American commercial director of all time to the birthplace of his own cinephilia, a halcyon postwar suburban utopia that’s instantly recognizable and doubles as one of the primal scenes of modern cinema. Like few mainstream directors before him or since, Spielberg has steadily rewritten the vocabulary and syntax of the artform, which makes his first official foray into self-portraiture (cowritten with Tony Kushner) significant. In the 1980s, after the fall of New Hollywood and the rise of sequel-driven, high-concept studio product, Spielberg was castigated as the face of impersonal, technocratic filmmaking. But he’s never exactly hidden in his work, employing clear directorial surrogates in everything from Jaws to Hook to The BFG, and The Fabelmans is his clearest attempt so far to reckon with what kind of artist he is, and why. The young Sammy is so mesmerized and terrified by the centerpiece train crash of The Greatest Show on Earth that he tries to re-create it, leading to a delightful montage that deliberately recalls Orson Welles’s famous quote about cinema being the greatest model train set a boy could ever have. The teenage version of Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) homes in on the thorny subtext of John Ford’s 1962 Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, whose hero changes history from the shadows, stage-managing reality so skillfully that the people around him are forced to report things on his terms—to “print the legend,” as it’s said in the film’s most famous line.

It’s allusions like these that give The Fabelmans its rich, dense, essayistic texture, which are complemented by a handful of startling, unforgettable images around the concept of image-making. In one, Sammy watches his 8mm train-crash sequence as it’s projected onto his own palms—the hands that had operated the camera transformed into a makeshift screen. At this point, Spielberg is a reigning master of such visual grace notes, which were all over his technically adroit remake of West Side Story. And yet as a storyteller, he still mostly has a left-to-right sensibility. The Fabelmans is structured around the steady, nomadic travels of its eponymous clan over the course of a decade; the script implies that their rootlessness is, to an extent, tied to the larger traditions of Judaism that shape their household routine, traditions that also render them outsiders to the American dream. The last big-ticket American movie to put these cultural concerns so front and center was the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, which Spielberg evokes—perhaps accidentally—in an early scene involving a tornado that hints at the Fabelmans’ stormy fortunes. Yet where that film used a meteorological tableaux to point toward the apocalypse, Spielberg uses it to activate his usual sense of wonder.

Like Spielberg’s real-life father, Arnold, who designed mainframe prototype computers for General Electric, Burt is a technological savant whose brilliance keeps him in demand and his family on the move. He’s gentle, patient, and indulgent—possibly to a fault, over-providing as compensation for how routinely he uproots the ones he loves. Kitchen-bound and having long since given up on her dreams of being a concert pianist, Mitzi complains about being killed with such kindness. She duly plays house at various outposts in New Jersey, Arizona, and California, alternately delighting and confounding Sammy and his four sisters with eccentric behavior that shades over into mania one odd, potentially selfish gesture at a time. When the tornado hits, Mitzi decides to drive directly toward it, kids in tow, as a fun diversion. As played by Williams in a tour-de-force performance that’s maybe a bit too tour de force-y for its own good, Mitzi is a passionate, relentless life force in thrall to her own charisma. During a family camping trip, she dances against the fire with an infectious but disconcerting exhibitionism, as if performing for some imagined, cosmic audience. Sammy, who loves his mother unequivocally—and identifies with her artistic spirit—films her strange display as casually as he shoots everything else in his life. But when he eventually reviews the footage to cut it together, the effect is queasily voyeuristic. What he sees about his mother—and the intimacy of her relationship with Burt’s best friend and coworker Bennie (Seth Rogen)—instigates a deep ambivalence about his filmmaking skills and their consequences. As it turns out, even when captured at 24 frames per second, the truth hurts.

Because certain details of Spielberg’s life story (his parents’ divorce, and the influence it had in the depictions of fractured, fragmenting family units in his early blockbusters like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.) are long-since iconic, the central plot trajectory of The Fabelmans feels familiar. The writing in some of the domestic scenes is thuddingly on the nose: Kushner’s playwright side can get the best of him, and Dano and Williams do their best to navigate their overdetermined dialogue. An interlude featuring Judd Hirsch as Sammy’s braggadocious, silent-movie veteran uncle, however, is more ridiculously, irresistibly hammy, especially in a movie that mostly keeps things kosher. Supposedly based closely on a figure from the director’s childhood, Hirsch’s shaggy interloper, who knows what it means to sacrifice stability for his muse, sees his nephew for the born entertainer that he is. He cautions him, with love and a bit of madness, that balancing art and family, no matter how dexterously, is bound to end with somebody “torn apart.” Hirsch is on screen for 10 minutes and has only one big speech, but he leaves an indelible impression; it’s the funniest, most devastating monologue in a Spielberg movie since Jaws.

The Fabelmans is at its most inspired and beautiful when Spielberg mobilizes his own coming-of-age to variously critique, satirize, and pay homage to complexly interlocking histories of cinematic style, technology, and genre. Each time Sammy gets a new camera or editing machine, we’re treated to meticulous and glorious re-creations of different celluloid formats. The movies young Sammy makes are imitative: deliriously inventive pastiches of Westerns and war pictures. But they also resonate beyond their frames. A goofy, gory combat montage is psychically indebted to Burt’s war experience even as it anticipates the handheld perspectives to come on Vietnam (and of course the nightmarish chaos of Saving Private Ryan).

When Sammy, wary of keeping his mother’s secret and heeding his uncle’s warning, becomes alienated from his own talent and puts the camera away, the film gets stuck in neutral; the scenes showing him getting by bullied by antisemitic peers at his new high school in Los Angeles bump up against the edge of cliché, but they do so intentionally. The Fabelmans reaches a triumphant, rhetorically dizzying peak when Sammy is recruited to shoot the graduating class’s beachside “ditch day” festivities and uses his camera as a way to settle accounts with his bullying, alpha-male enemies—a revenge fantasy in which the lens proves mightier than the sword. It’s here that Kushner and Spielberg make hay of the earlier allusion to Liberty Valance, with Sammy learning that his ability to cut and print the legend is the great leveler. Confronted by a big-man-on-campus classmate who’s confused and hurt by his onscreen depiction—not in spite of how good he’s been made to look, but because of it, in sarcastic, quasi-mythic slow-motion—Sammy promises his concerns will be their little secret. “Unless,” he adds, “I make a movie about it one day.” Which, of course, he has: Spielberg’s desire, 60 years later, to show himself getting the last laugh is almost revelatorially petty.

History is written by the winners, and it’s worth asking whether, for all its technical accomplishment, The Fabelmans is anything more than an extended, ceremonial victory lap. (Certain aspects do seem perfectly calibrated for potential trips to the podium.) One common denominator to the movies Spielberg has made over the second act of his career—after 1985’s The Color Purple saw him shift in spirit from film-brat showman to Serious Filmmaker, with all the laurels and prestige that implies—is a desire to examine the past using state-of-the-art means, which can, on the surface, look a bit like glossy and borderline-reactionary nostalgia. Viewed this way, The Fabelmans could seem overly cozy in addition to being self-aggrandizing, with Sammy insulated from the harsher realities of his time and place by his family’s economic privilege. But the film is hardly blind to matters of money and class, or the faulty notion that they’re related to happiness. A dreamlike passage when Burt shows his kids their sprawling new home emphasizes a sterile, architectural emptiness, while a giant blow-out argument staged in the same cavernous space is made even more harrowing by Sammy’s vision of himself filming it—a glimpse, perhaps, of increasingly self-documenting generations to come.

The Fabelmans ends as it must, with Sammy on the precipice of success, ensconced in Hollywood and egged on once and for all by a pep talk from one of the greatest American filmmakers of all time. The identity of this flinty, fleeting mentor (and of the director who plays him) have already been widely circulated on social media; suffice it to say that it’s a truly inspired piece of casting that flatters both parties, as well as Spielberg himself for his connection to both. For years, Spielberg has sworn that every word of this surreal, profane exchange actually happened, which ultimately may be another example of printing the legend. But as the film’s brilliant, hilarious, and ultimately humble final camera movement suggests, sometimes a little reframing is necessary, even for a master. Spielberg sees things like nobody else, and it’s a pleasure to be behind those eyes.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.