“Life is not like the movies.”
Maybe sometimes life is exactly like the movies. You know the old phrase of art imitating life and that kind of thing. That’s exactly the territory that’s covered in Steven Spielberg’s latest film The Fabelmans. It’s an autobiographical film where the names are changed to protect both the guilty and the innocent. It’s also the first time that Spielberg has directed his own writing in over 20 years. In those 20 years Spielberg has become something of a moviemaking machine, and I think he felt it was time that the machine walked away from the spotlight for a minute and allowed the man behind the machine to show his face again. It used to be about heart; lately it’s been about box office, and more recently it’s been about surviving after the hit the industry took with COVID. I think Spielberg had a lot of things to get off his chest, and it looks like he might have found the time and place to do just that. While the film is a love letter to people who still think movies are a kind of wizard’s magic, it was also a little bit of therapy for this particular wizard. Like all autobiographies, it’s not really finished, and that’s the most profound takeaway I had when the film ended.
Sam Fabelman (Francis-DeFord) is being taken to his first movie. He’s scared of what he’s about to experience, worrying about the room being dark and people being of giant size. His parents insist that he overcome his fears, and they take him to see Cecil DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth. From the first flickering moments of light, he’s suddenly mesmerized by what he sees. When the climactic train crash occurs, he is both frightened and compelled to watch. This is the magic of cinema, and little Sammy Fabelman is bitten by the bug. But it haunts him at first, giving him nightmares. His obsession at first isn’t the movie so much as the train crash, and he asks for an electric train set for Hanukkah and ends up reproducing the crash much to the consternation of his father (Dano). But his mother has an idea. She gives him their 8mm movie camera and encourages him to film the crash; this way he can work out his obsession over and over, and it would go easier on the pricey train set. That’s where the obsession shifts from the train to the movie process.
Before long he’s older and now played by Gabrielle LaBelle. He’s using the camera to record everything from family camping trips to candid moments in the home. Eventually he begins to make his own films, at first reproducing moments from films he’s seen, and eventually gathering as many as 40 of his friends to create an original WWII picture. From our vantage point, we know where all of this is going. The first echoes of Saving Private Ryan shine through, and he’s using this gift to overcome his own shyness and struggles with anti-Semitism. From here it becomes kind of a standard coming-of-age film that gets him through high school.
Sam also struggles with the old adage that the camera never lies. When his father asks him to cut together a nice film of their camping trip, it’s to cheer up his grieving mother (Williams), who has just lost her own mother. His dad buys him an editing station, and when he takes a closer look at the footage, he uncovers a secret that changes his relationship with his mother and changes his own passion. Later he has an interesting visit from an estranged Uncle Boris, played wonderfully by Judd Hirsch. Through some rather tough love, he comes to understand what it means to be so in love with creating art.
The film ends with his overcoming the bullying he suffered and losing his first and only girlfriend by the use of filming the senior ditch day event at the beach and finally showing it at his senior prom.
The film is full of many aha moments, and I must admit that I expected it to be more magical than it was. There are many such moments, but I guess you could call me greedy. Gabrielle LaBelle does a wonderful job as soon as you let go of the idea he’s playing Steven Spielberg. I struggled with that at first and eventually realized that while it is an indeed autobiographical film, it’s not really a documentary. At some point that happened, and I think for me it was when he discovered the family secret. At that moment these characters became more compelling to me, and Spielberg kind of fell through the cracks. I wish there had been that kind of moment earlier.
I love films that explore the magic of filmmaking. Some have become wonderful favorites like Hugo and the Italian film Cinema Paradiso. Some end up disappointing, like this year’s Empire Of Light. The Fabelmans falls somewhere in the middle for me. Partly, as I said, it’s unfinished. I would be open to another film taking this the next step forward. I doubt that’s going to happen.
It should be noted that the emotional score was provided by John Williams, who has scored most of Spielberg’s films. He’s finally going to retire at 91. He has more Oscars and Oscar nominations than anyone in the history of the industry. His career goes all the way back to the 60’s, where, as Johnny Williams he scored such television shows as Lost In Space and Land of the Giants. There likely won’t be another like him.
A highlight of the film is a later cameo by David Lynch as the legendary John Ford. It’s the best scene in the film and brought such a plethora of emotions from tears to laughter to awe. It’s the one scene, that if true, I’d love to have witnessed in person.
The Fabelmans is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec at an average of 70 mbps. The film was shot on 35mm so is native 4K. Leave it to Steven Spielberg to give us a film about the love of film and shoot it on … well … film. The organic presentation is pretty magical. Of course, there are tons of stuff shot on 8mm and 16mm to recreate some of his early attempts at filmmaking, but they blend into the tapestry flawlessly, and while they certainly do not share the same resolution, the use of film for the main part of the movie keeps everything in that nice little space. The Dolby Vision/HDR allow for fine contrast and help with even the muted colors of the period. There is clever use of shadow definition, and the superior black levels certainly fulfill the intent. Textures are likely more benefit than colors, and the clothes offer excellent detail of textures. The production design shines with this extraordinary ultra-high-definition image presentation.
The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 trach is everything you hoped it would be. John Williams is reaching the end of an extraordinary career, a career he can’t quite leave at 91 with the ability of Steven Spielberg to draw him back in. This isn’t William’s most dynamic score. Not even close. It might be one of his more emotional. The clever use of piano both as source music and score delivers the emotional beats like only John Williams can. The dialog is perfectly placed and always clear. The surrounds are mostly used to fill the environment with subtle sounds, but the score and ambient sounds during Sammy’s train episode are quite immersive. Subs aren’t really going to shake the room, but they add just enough depth to fill the sound quite nicely.
The extras are found one on each disc .
The Fabelmans A Personal Journey: (11:00) Spielberg leads the feature by telling us why this was the perfect time to tell this story. Others join in and talk about their feelings about joining Spielberg on this deeply personal film.
Family Dynamics: (15:28) Again Spielberg leads the way as he goes through the casting process and how each actor connects to the real family member they represent. There is some home movies footage of his real family for comparison. The actors also offer insight into their take on the characters and the pressure to do them justice.
Crafting The World Of The Fabelmans: (22:04) This is the making-of feature that shows us the production design process to bring Spielberg’s childhood homes to life. His sisters helped the design team to recreate these places. There’s some on costumes and that actual items from the family members were included. Of course, the best moments have to do with his reunion with John Williams on the 50th anniversary of their first working together. Williams is one of the greats, and he gets his moment here.
For all of us who still love cinema and still prefer to experience it in a dark room with a huge screen, this is a love letter to us all. If you prefer your films on your phone or computer screen? Not so much. For the rest of us … “Movies are dreams that you never forget.”