by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD
Steven Speilberg is the crown prince of movie makers. His blockbusters, Jaws, Jurassic Park, The Bridge of Spies, ET and the Indiana Jones series, are too numerous to list completely here. His latest film, The Fabelmans, winning Motion Picture and Best Director awards at the 2023 Golden Globe Awards, adds a new jewel to his crown.
Its format is that of a bildungsroman, a coming of age story, which ends with its protagonist, Sammy Fabelman, skipping ahead into his future as a movie director. In addition, it seems to
be a kind of biopic, because many of the events in Sammy’s life match what is known about Speilberg’s. And Sammy’s name and Speilberg’s are linked. “Speil” in Yiddish can mean a story. But a fable is a special kind of fiction, one that hints at or expresses a kind of truth that is other than factual truth. Is Speilberg telling us he is a fable man?
Speilberg’s sister, Anne, is reported to have written a screenplay, I’ll Be Home, about the family almost twenty-five years ago, but Speilberg apparently had concerns that the account might hurt their parents’ feelings. Yet he is reported to have said they pestered him to make a film about them.
The story opens during the Christmas season of 1952 in suburban New Jersey. A young Jewish couple, Mitzi and Burt Fabelman take their young son, Sammy, to see Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Initially reluctant to see his first film, young Sammy becomes fascinated with a scene portraying a train wreck and winds up pleading for a model train setup for Hannuka—highlighting the family’s Jewishness—and access to his father’s 8 mm movie camera so that he can film a replica of the train wreck scene that may have traumatized him.
Paul Dano plays Burt as an engineer and scientist who is tolerant of Sammy’s filmic interests as a hobby, but whose professional focus is on things that impact practically on people’s lives and whose interpersonal focus is on being accommodating. Mitzi, played by Michelle Mitchell, has permitted her role as a wife and mother of four to derail her dreams of a career as a concert pianist. Seth Rogan plays Bennie, an adjunct to the family, Burt’s best friend, someone never too busy to entertain others.
As the plot unfolds, while editing his recording of a family outing, Sammy uncovers inappropriate intimacy between Bennie and Mitzi and confronts his mother. Shamed and shocked, she promises to reform, but ultimately decides to leave the family for Bennie.
When Mitzi’s mother dies, great uncle Boris comes to pay his respects. He is a stock orthodox Jew who insists on sleeping on the floor as part of the mourning ritual and whose table manners leave something to be desired. Paradoxically, he has followed his dream of joining a circus, and seems to function as a kind of Greek chorus, warning that following one’s dreams is crucial but dangerous.
These complexities are highlighted by a crucial point in the story. After a high-school screening of Sammy’s amateur filming of the senior class Ditch Day celebration, a fellow student, complains of being bitterly discomfited by the contrast between his glossy image in the film and his real, less attractive self. The screening was also pivotal in transforming Sammy’s status from Jewish nerd to pop celebrity, his fellow students chanting “bagel man” to applaud him.
The movie ends with a faux cameo appearance by the famous director, John Ford, played by David Lynch, giving Sammy advice about how to frame movie scenes, sending the future star director skipping off into his future. Speilberg has often described such a meeting. Does he intend this close as an attestation of truth in this fable?
Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe a certain kind of truth.