Steven Spielberg’s life has always hovered just outside of his films. In E.T. he filtered his feelings about his parents’ divorce through the eyes of a child who meets an alien. He’s wrestled with questions of fatherhood and familial guilt in everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind to A.I. to Catch Me If You Can. His talent has been the stuff of legend ever since he was just an upstart hanging around the Universal backlot, but his own story has been only used in metaphor.
The Fabelmans ditches metaphor for something resembling the truth. The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, is Spielberg’s take on his own childhood, a mission statement for his entire career, and a loving portrait of his flawed parents, Leah Adler and Arnold Spielberg. Sure, the protagonist is named Sammy Fabelman (Gabrielle LaBelle) and not Steven Spielberg, but what you are watching is the director telling his own story before anyone else has the chance to.
The Fabelmans begins with a trip to the movies on Jan. 10, 1952 in wintry New Jersey, which is where Spielberg spent some of his formative years while his father was working for RCA. Sammy’s parents Burt (Paul Dano) and Mitzi (Michelle Williams) are pumping their fearful young son up, explaining just how motion pictures operate down to frame rate. “Movies are dreams, doll, that you never forget,” his mother says before they go in to see The Greatest Show on Earth and his obsession, specifically with a train-crash sequence, begins. (You can watch Spielberg discuss his real life experience seeing Cecil B. DeMille’s Oscar winner here.) What follows is the evolution of an artist and his Jewish American family in midcentury America.
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Sam’s father is a level-headed computer engineer who regards his son’s filmmaking as a hobby. Mitzi, meanwhile, is a dreamer with an infectious energy, prone to driving into tornadoes and dancing in her nightgown. She’s a talented piano player who became a homemaker because it was what was expected of her, and while she loves her children dearly, you can tell her passions are straining against the seams of the life she’s made for herself. Other characters flit in and out of Sam’s orbit—his close family friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), who captivates all members of the Fabelman clan with his charm; his real great uncle Boris (Judd Hirsch), an entertainer with an old-country accent who teaches Sam about how art and family can sit at odds with one another.
If you’re wondering how much of The Fabelmans really happened, the answer is that almost all of it probably did in some capacity. It’s a memory piece, filled with the tiny details that can only exist in the mind’s eye of someone who was there—Mitzi’s oversized red nails, for example, clacking against her piano keys.
“I just wanted to tell a story that was completely honest to my recollections,” Spielberg explained at a press conference in Toronto. “I’m not saying that all my recollections are 100 percent accurate, but as best as I can recollect, I wanted to tell a story that most reflected my experience growing up with my sisters and their experiences growing up with me and my mom and dad and uncle Bennie.” The Fabelmans‘ arc revolves around the fracturing of Mitzi and Burt’s marriage, but it’s also an episodic narrative that follows the Fabelmans—Sammy and his three sisters, just like Spielberg and his three sisters—as they move from New Jersey to Arizona to California for his father’s work.
Spielberg wrote his roman à clef alongside his frequent collaborator, Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, who also contributed to Munich, Lincoln, and, most recently, West Side Story. Spielberg joked that Kushner was basically his therapist as they built the screenplay out of stories from his childhood over Zoom before COVID-19 vaccines were in circulation. It was the pandemic that made Spielberg decide it was time to start telling this story, his first screenwriting credit in more than 20 years. “I didn’t know where this was going,” he said of the public health crisis. “And I thought this is something I’ve got to get out of me now.”
When it came time for production, putting his childhood on-screen also meant that Spielberg had to recreate some of his earliest efforts, the 8mm productions he made as a kid. Among those highlights featured in The Fabelmans is Escape to Nowhere, his early attempt at a World War II picture, which he actually showed to the cast of Saving Private Ryan while making that blockbuster about the same conflict. (Spielberg would later win his second Oscar for Best Director for the film.) Spielberg said at TIFF that he strove to make the new versions of his old experiments more proficient. “I worked really hard to make sure that all of the recreation of the 8mm shot as a kid was better than the 8mm shot as a kid,” he said to laughs. “The angles were better.” The Fabelmans’ recreation of Escape to Nowhere, bearing the same title, will, naturally, bring to mind Private Ryan, and Spielberg echoes his own work elsewhere throughout his latest. It even opens with the child Sammy looking up at a movie screen with pure Spielberg Face, that signature expression of wonder.
There is, of course, an aspect of self-mythologizing to The Fabelmans, as there is in any project that walks the line between memoir and invention. In the film, Spielberg is both clear-eyed about the sorrow in his early life, and starry-eyed about the magic of the cinema, his greatest passion. And while he doesn’t want to reveal what exactly is history and what is fictional, there is one scene which he said is pure fact. There’s a sequence in which Sam meets the great director John Ford, played here by another great director, David Lynch. “I can say that the John Ford scene happened to me word for word, nothing more, nothing less,” he said.
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