By John H. Foote
(****) In theatres
Over the course of his near magical career Steven Spielberg has given us 11 Best Picture nominees, been nominated for Best Director eight times, winning twice, and been nominated for the Directors Guild of America Award more times than any other director in history. It seems that his career as a film director was preordained and blessed before he directed a single film as a professional. And make no mistake, though just one of his film has won Best Picture, his masterpiece Schindler’s List (1993), deserving nominees were Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982), the non-nominated Empire of the Sun (1987), Saving Private Ryan (1998), and Lincoln (2012). His greatest films remain the aforementioned group along with Jaws (1975), still stunning nearly 50 years later, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the two sequels, Jurassic Park (1993), A.I. – Artificial Intelligence (2001), Minority Report (2002), Munich (2005), War of the Worlds (2005) with the exception of the final fifteen seconds, War horse (2011), Bridge of Spies (2015), The Post (2017) and last years remake of West Side Story (2021), the man is unstoppable. With nothing left to prove now for many years, he can do pretty much anything he wants. Nearing 80, time has limited him to just a few more films, same with Martin Scorsese, so I hope they do their dream projects. Contrary to Quentin Tarantino’s arrogant, self-righteous comment, directing is certainly not a young man’s job, many filmmakers over 60 have made great films. There are times, and this is one of them, when Mr. Tarantino should keep his mouth shut.
The Fabelmans takes its place among Spielberg’s very best films and seems destined for many nominations and, at this writing, is the year’s best film, the frontrunner for Best Film and Director. It is such an exquisite film, not afraid to show the divorce that tore Spielberg’s family apart or the Anti-Semitism he dealt with as a child and teenager. We see what shaped the man who become the most famous director in movies and with argument for Martin Scorsese, cinema’s greatest filmmaker.
His mother hands him a movie camera and after seeing The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) at the movie theatre, he sets out to recreate the famous train crash in the film with miniatures using his model train set. From there he is off and running, making war films, westerns and having screenings for his family. Echoing in his ears are the words from Mitzi (Michelle Williams), his artistically gifted mother, “Movies are like dreams that you will never forget.” Yet truth is captured on film too, the camera hides nothing and it is film for the first time a young Spielberg sees there is much more between his mother and his Uncle Bennie (Seth Rogan). He cannot deny what he saw, nor edit the scene out, perhaps the first time Spielberg recognized that the camera was all seeing.
There is almost a reverence when Mitzi hands the young Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) a camera, as though she knew this was exactly what he needed. His father Burt (Paul Dano) thinks of his son’s filmmaking as a hobby, but Uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch) blows in and makes clear the young man is going to need to make a choice if his love for art is greater than that for family. This is a stunning sequence, acted with spectacular bluster by Hirsch who has earned ovations when he makes his exit.
Sammy’s gifts grow as a filmmaker as his family splinters apart and perhaps he dove into his art to escape the pain of the split between his mother and father. There comes a point in every child’s life where they see their parents as more than Mom and Dad, but as human beings with flaws and strengths. Sammy first sees the fracture between them on film, in the background of something he put on film. Only when he sees it, rewinds and sees it again and again does he realize what is happening in the house.
The screenplay, by Spielberg and Tony Kushner, could have easily become sweet, even reverential towards Spielberg but never does. It feels authentic, and we see through the film elements of his later films and how his early shaped the events he films in Hollywood. The writers do not go into great depth about the Hollywood years, a good move because Spielberg has been so charmed in his career it might have come off like a fairy tale.
The performances within the film are superb, especially Michelle Williams, positively luminous as Mitzi and a wonderful tribute to Spielberg’s mother to whom he was very close. Judd Hirsch lights up the screen for his six or eight minutes, a force of nature in a small but vital scene in which he extolled the importance of art in the world. Paul Dano is excellent as Spielberg’s father, a good man who just does not appreciate what an artist has within them. Equally fine are the wonderful Julia Butters as Sammy/Spielberg’s little sister, though I wish they had given this prodigy more to do, and Seth Rogen as the man who alters the course of the parents marriage.
And of course Gabrielle LaBelle as Sammy, who is of course Spielberg and through his soulful eyes we see life, and more specifically film impacting and stroking his very soul. Living this life as it unfolded, what else could Spielberg have become? Film was his destiny the same moment he saw The Greatest Show on Earth to the opening of Jaws (1975) and the Oscar wins in 1994 and 1999.
Is Spielberg the greatest director in the history of the cinema? He might be, but there are arguments for John Ford, Charles Chaplin, Frank Capra, William Wyler, Elia Kazan, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese. If he is not the greatest he is certainly among the best five. This beautiful film is the beginning of that, and is the best film of the year. Oscar awaits.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.