You might find the key to unlocking the filmography of Steven Spielberg in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Remember the final gut-punch of that film, and one of the most quoted lines in film history? “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Spielberg considers Ford a major influence, and has lovingly recounted a time he met the iconic director when he was just a movie-loving 15-year-old. With The Fabelmans, Spielberg finally prints his own legend, and finds a lot of beautiful truth doing it. The Fabelmans could only come from a director who is so connected with the art of moviemaking that he can tell an intimate story and have it reverberate across generations. The memories of his childhood ultimately influenced the childhoods of millions, with the trauma of his parents’ divorce serving as the foundation of masterpieces like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, among others.
As divorce became more commonplace in the 1970s, Spielberg’s films gave the children of broken homes a band of heroes who shared in their grief and desire for understanding. The director also conjured a sort of optimistic magic that won over the masses but turned off some New Hollywood disciples who rued Spielberg’s blatantly happy endings. To them, the world wasn’t all friendly spaceships and swashbuckling adventurers — cinema should be more honest, reflect real life. To them, giving audiences sentimental finales counted as manipulation, not inspiration.
And sure, Spielberg certainly manipulates us with his stories, but in a way that shows deep care for his audience. With The Fabelmans, he proves how he reckoned at an early age that life cannot be controlled by cameras and props and fantasy, but movies can. He saw his family crumble under the weight of a struggling marriage, after all — you can’t fix that in post. Spielberg shows us the hard way throughout the course of this semi-autobiographical story that the only place you can make the happy ending you want is on the big screen. As a character points out, life ain’t like the movies.
Featuring Gabriel LaBelle as Spielberg’s adolescent avatar Sammy Fabelman, the film is a midcentury family portrait, with Sammy’s parents (played by Paul Dano and Michelle Williams) at odds over their son’s love of movies. Spielberg packs in plenty of vibrancy, showing glimpses of the hilarious home movies he made with his sisters and recounting dating a devout Christian who had the hots for him because of his Jewish heritage. But when it’s time to bring the emotion, he doesn’t hold back. You feel it in a gregarious uncle (Judd Hirsch) who shares the ugly truth of loving art more than your family. You feel the sting of Sammy discovering his mother’s secret. You feel it in the painful memories of antisemitic bullies and parents calling it quits.
The beauty of aging is being able to look back on your past with added wisdom. The love Spielberg has for his parents is apparent in every frame of The Fabelmans, even in its toughest moments. He dedicates the film to their memory, and it’s clear that this effort is as much therapy for the director as it is entertainment for his audience. But The Fabelmans is unlike most Spielberg films — while the filmmaker has never shied away from darkness, here he doesn’t try to insert that optimistic magic where it didn’t organically appear while he was growing up.
Spielberg made it his mission once he got his big break to fix in his movies what he couldn’t fix in real life. His happy endings are gifts to the people like him, who need to feel that gentle control when life seems so uncertain. The Fabelmans is one of Spielberg’s best movies because of how devastatingly honest the director is with the printing of his legend.