‘The Fabelmans’ Review: Steven Spielberg’s Family Drama Is An Unusual Ode To Moving Images

Making a movie is like watching the magic of lights come alive on screen. To be able to capture snippets of reality and put them across through an astutely manipulative process going hand in hand with our perception of vision and the mechanical working of a camera is a marvel that has been enriching our experience for more than 100 years now. With humble beginnings in the early 1900s, with just the marriage of the camera and the human who together set out on an exploration to refurbish reality, pointing it at a train arriving at a station or at workers coming out of a factory, and today it becoming a complete artform is a journey in the evolution of that magic. Each person found in Cinema a truth of their own which gave rise to theories, practices, and experiments to exactly arrive at an understanding of ‘what is cinema.’ Through each of these explorations, the myriad ways in which Cinema captivates and hooks people at large were understood, and newer ways of storytelling were arrived at. Cinema is all that and much more. It is a mirroring of the condition of being human, of tapping those emotions which the heart yearns for, but life doesn’t provide, of transforming to a different world, even if for three hours, but to have those three hours locked in mind for years. Cinema shapes reality, is shaped by reality and creates novel expressions of reality, thereby immortalizing it. Like many such expressions of people who captured light and projected images, “The Fabelmans” is the story of a boy who was enthused with the magic of Cinema at a tender age and eventually ended up changing its course of storytelling forever.


Steven Spielberg is not giving a romantic ode to Cinema—there are not many direct references even to what it does. Spielberg is interested more in the “how” than the “what.” In chronicling his own growing years, we look at his past not with a sense of nostalgia for the formative years or with the feeling of looking at a genius. The entire film is just the journey of a boy with a 16mm camera, recording everything around him. It is his journey to understand the medium and how it works. But more importantly, it is the story of a family grappling with turbulent years. Sammy Fabelman is mesmerized and shocked when he is taken to the Cinema for the very first time by his parents. His mother Mitzi introduces him to the camera, and Sammy starts shooting. His first film is about a toy train, and when the film stock came after processing, he projected the film for himself in what is the most tenderly provocative image: we see two small hands of a boy, the moving image, his eyes filled with awe. It is through such moments that Spielberg introduces the world that belongs to him.

Mitzi Fabelman and Burt, Sammy’s father, share a healthy yet difficult bond, with both of their interests divided. Burt is an engineer, a geek who talks about all things science, biology, and mathematics, something that all the other characters in the film have trouble understanding. Mitzi is a gifted concert pianist who couldn’t pursue what her heart desired due to various reasons. On the other side, there is Bennie, who is the “best friend” and a business partner of Burt. Leaving aside the romantic dynamics among the three, on a subliminal layer, the interaction of their characteristics paints a picture of Cinema. Benny is loved by everyone in the family, and he represents a certain kind of bridge, which makes it easier for them to understand what Burt fails to put forward with his overtly technical explanations. Benny has a better knack for putting the point across and uses jokes to convey the same things that had everyone confused moments before. Benny has the quality through which Cinema also functions: he knows how to present things. On the other hand, Burt represents the force that regards Sammy’s adventures with the camera as just a hobby and not to be taken seriously. Later in the film, it is Bennie who gives a camera to Sammy, reasserting the “cinematic” force he represents. It is interesting how these seemingly unrelated traits of the characters end up making points relevant to the medium. It is as if, through these moments, Spielberg is streamlining the behavior of Cinema through the opposing behaviors of his characters. Benny’s playful, full-of-life appeal is synonymous with the behavior of Cinema, while Burt’s technical understanding of things, making them fill with a stagnancy of a certain kind, is not Cinema! 


Through all the films that Sammy shoots and projects to a limited audience, we see him evolving as a storyteller. What we also see is the staggering power of Cinema to move people. In shooting a war film with his college friends, Sammy adds one extra layer at the end, giving it a profound meaning. Until that point, his films were just events that often led to nothing. But with this film, Sammy understands the emotional side of things by giving a release. And through that, it is Spielberg who tells us that Cinema is an amalgamation of the technical aspect with the emotional aspect, that both of them have to co-exist in order to enhance each other. Cinema is what pleases the heart and mind at the same time. In the dark hall, sitting with strangers, when the final frame comes up, tears start rolling down, and hands beat into each other in unison, reverberating for the spectacle created by the marrying of the man with the machine. It is through such petals dropped in parts that Spielberg speaks of Cinema, hiding fragrance behind the cover of frames.

As articulated earlier, the film never wants to be a deliberate love letter to Cinema; rather, it focuses on the boy and his life to make strong points about Cinema. Through Sammy’s third and final short film, Spielberg encapsulates the quality of the medium where things appear larger than life, often not a very good representation of truth. The sheer magnificence it imprints on anything it touches can be troublesome and manipulative, even to damaging extents. Here comes the question of authenticity and how whatever is shown on screen is just a version of the truth that is often garlanded by the vision of the maker. And versions of the truth can be flawed. Filling such ideas meticulously into the screenplay, it becomes all the more spellbinding, with the story fundamentally being that of a family, of a mother and son.


Co-writer Tony Kushner came up with the title of the film, which is aptly reflective of the magical nature of Cinema to tell stories, something which Sammy does throughout the film, and his character is based actually on the younger days of Spielberg himself. So now, years later, looking back at his past, Spielberg is “the fableman,” creating that world, making you smile and cry, and at the same time celebrating the wonder of making movies.

See more: Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Fabelmans’ Follows Heart Over Head, Unapologetically!

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Shreyas Pande
Shreyas Pande
Shreyas is a screenwriter who likes contemplating on cinema. That is when he is not writing a poem or quoting some Urdu couplet or posting excessively on his Instagram.

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