The Fabelmans – A Case Study in Creative Success (4*)

The Fabelmans is a well crafted movie focusing on the roots of Steven Spielberg’s remarkably successful career. Still, it might not be for everyone. (4*)
The Fabelmans

The Fabelmans – Snapshot


The Fabelmans is Steven Spielberg’s very personal account of why he has been one of the most successful and creative people in Hollywood.  Recounting his childhood years, before he ended up in Southern California, it is an example of nearly perfect filmmaking by a very well-practiced team.  It illustrates some of the important foundations to creativity and success as well as an intriguing story of an important cultural figure.

Where to Watch:

Rent: Multiple Sources ($6) or wherever you get your disks

The Fabelmans – The Oscar Buzz

Oscar Nominations:

Best Picture

Director (Steven Spielberg)

Original Screenplay (Steven Spielberg/Tony Kushner)

Leading Actress (Michelle Williams)

Supporting Actor (Judd Hirsch)

Production Design (Rick Carter/Karen O’Hara)

Original Score (John Williams)

The Fabelmans received seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, and four other major-category nods.  That ranked it fourth out of all of this years nominated movies in my Oscar Quality Index and yet it didn’t win a single Oscar!  

Spielberg received three nominations – for producer, director, and writer – bringing his career total to 22.  Curiously, though, he has only won three times, twice for Schindler’s List (93) for Director and Best Picture and also the Directing Oscar for Saving Private Ryan (98).  There is almost a distinct pattern of nominating Spielberg but then not giving him the win.  Similarly, under his direction, nineteen of his actors have received nominations, but only three of them have gone on to win the Oscar!  (It is also fascinating that although Spielberg, along with George Lucas, is one of the two men responsible for creating the Hollywood Blockbuster, with films like Jaws, Close Encounters, E.T. And the original Indiana Jones trilogy, all of his Oscar wins have been for dramas less successful at the box office, like Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies. It almost seems like Hollywood, and the Academy, have taken Spielberg for granted, even after he brought it lots of money!

The same pattern seems evident for at least one of Spielberg’s long-time collaborators, and one of the few active Hollywood icons who is older than Spielberg, John Williams.  Williams wrote the scores for most of Spielberg’s movies (including The Fabelmans) and won the Original Score Oscar only for Schinder’s List, E.T., and Jaws, all Spielberg films.  He has two other wins and 48 other nominations. 

Both Michelle Williams and Judd Hirsch received acting nominations.  Williams, essentially playing Spielberg’s mother, is fabulous as an artistic woman trapped in the culture and marriage of the 50s and 60s.  Her performance was certainly equal to Michelle Yeoh’s (who won the Oscar in Everything…) and Cate Blanchett in Tar.  Judd Hirsch, as Spielberg’s Jewish uncle, delivers a fantastic performance, but his presence on screen is a scant six minutes.  Still, look for what might be one of his best-ever roles!

The Fabelmans – The Movie’s Family Tree

The Following Movies Share Talent with This One 

(and if you like these films, you might like this one):

Schindler’s List (93) :  Director (Spielberg); Composer (Williams); Editor (Kahn); Sound (Judkins)

Saving Private Ryan (98) : Director (Spielberg); Composer (Williams); Editor (Kahn); Sound (Judkins)

Munich (05) : Director (Spielberg); Writer (Kushner); Composer (Williams); Cinematography (Kaminski);  Editor (Kahn); Production Design (Carter)

Lincoln (12) : Director (Spielberg); Writer (Kushner); Composer (Williams); Cinematography (Kaminski);  Editor (Kahn); Production Design (Carter); Sound (Judkins)

Blue Valentine (10) : Acting(Williams)

Spielberg has produced and/or directed dozens more movies than listed above including blockbusters starting with Jaws.  But The Fabelmans isn’t a Jaws-like movie.  It borrows more from the emotions of Lincoln or even Schindler’s List than it does from his more popular movies.  Notice also how a Spielberg movie isn’t just his film.  Several of his collaborators have worked with him for three or more decades, like Williams (music), Kahn (editing) and Judkins (sound).  Others may have joined a few years later, but have continued to work with him like Kaminski (Cinematography), Kushner (writing) and Carter (production design).  The point is, when you see a “Spielberg Movie” you are seeing the work of a well-seasoned team who have worked with each other, successfully,  many times and have come to understand what everyone is trying to achieve.  That leads to a very high degree of professionalism, but also a degree of consistency that you don’t find with less cohesive teams.  Bottom-line: if you liked Spielberg’s earlier dramas, you will likely love this one.

I’ve included Blue Valentine because it appears that Spielberg decided, after watching that film, that Michelle Williams would be the best actress to portray his own mom.  The earlier movie earned Williams a Leading Actress Oscar nomination and a reputation for great portrayals of sensuality.  Interesting that Spielberg made this connection with his mother!

The Fabelmans – What Others Think

Unlike The Whale, The Fabelmans received highly favorable critical reviews placing it seventh (actually tied with Everything Everywhere All at Once ) out of our 25 general-interest movies this year.  Critics generally zeroed in on Spielberg’s willingness to get so personal in exploring his formative roots.  In the train-wreck story, Brian Tallerico (RogerEbert) suggests that we “Ponder the visions and the history that Spielberg has put on film just so he could “control it”.”  And Manohla Dhargis (New York Times) gave the film a “Critics Pick” and suggested that the film “…recounts the moral education of Sammy Fabelman (the early Spielberg character)…who in adolescence learns that life is agonizingly more complicated than he grasped as a child.”  Jonathon Romney (Sight&Sound) gives a slightly less favorable review, but notes that “…its most interesting revelations seem to surface in spite of, not out of, its steadfast attempts to plumb its maker’s psyche.”  Clearly this is a movie by Spielberg and about Spielberg.

But it all might be For Spielberg.  Audience reaction is a less enthusiastic than the critics, placing it in the middle of the pack of this year’s movies.  Still that is substantially better than at least two of our other Best Picture nominees, Tar and Banshees of Inisherin!  I think the conclusion to reach is that this might not be a “popcorn movie”, but it isn’t considered as boring or overwrought like the audience reaction to a couple of the other films we’ve viewed this year.

The Fabelmans – Special Mention

Steven SpielbergThe Fabelmans is, essentially, an autobiographical film explaining how Spielberg developed his interest and talent in making movies. Reportedly, every scene in the film has a basis in his early life.  While it never makes Spielberg look like someone with suspect motives or evil intentions, it does honestly portray his encounters with life’s problems, all in the context of growing up in the 1950s and 60s.

Spielberg’s life history reads a lot like that of many people of the times.  He was born in 1946 in Cincinnati, Ohio but moved to New Jersey in 1952 when his dad – an electrical engineer, as in the movie – was hired by RCA.   Five years later, with Dad pursuing an advancing career, the family moved to Phoenix, Arizona. There he made his first home movie of a train wreck modeled after the film The Greatest Show on Earth. In his early teens he made more than a dozen 8mm films, some of which are chronicled in The Fabelmans.  As in the movie, the family moved to California, somewhere around 1963 or 1964.  At that time, Spielberg would have been 17 or 18, so he graduated from high school soon after, again, consistent with the movie.

As The Fabelmans portrayed, Spielberg was more interested in movies than in pursuing academics.  He applied to the film school at University of Southern California, but was turned down because of his grades.  He never actually completed any college degree.  But he did intern at Universal Studios for a summer, and so the final scenes of the movie may well have happened.  In the early 70s he did some directing for TV series including Marcus Welby and Colombo.  He also directed his first feature film to appear in a theater, Sugarland Express, released in 1974.  

His second studio feature film also turned into his first box office success.  Jaws, released in 1975, initiated the age of the movie-theater blockbuster, setting all kinds of movie records and keeping people out of beach waters for years.  Alfred Hitchcock praised the director saying that “he’s the first one of us who doesn’t see the proscenium arch.” A few years later, he directed Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another blockbuster, and followed that with the Indiana Jones Trilogy and E.T. The Extra-terrestrial.  These early successes paved the way for him to pretty much write his own ticket because he generated lots of money for the studios.

Starting in the 80s, and continuing the rest of his career, he began to produce subtler works including his only Best Picture winner, Schindler’s List.  The Fabelmans, a relatively low budget film, is the only one considered to be heavily autobiographical.  (Although several of his movies focus on themes important to his Jewish background).  He is, today, considered one of the most powerful men in Hollywood and his wealth has been estimated at $2 – 4 Billion, making him only one of two Hollywood figures – George Lucas is the other – in the Fortune 400 richest Americans.

Given Spielberg’s astoundingly successful life in the movies, it is interesting to see a film exploring just how he got started.   Another important feature is the film as an exploration of what the 1950s and 1960s were like, especially for those who didn’t live those times.

Creativity and Success – Any movie or story exploring someone as enormously successful as Steven Spielberg, must also deal with the twin themes of creativity and success.  The Fabelmans illustrates key principles that seem to provide a foundation for these concepts.

Unfortunately, our understanding of what makes for these attributes isn’t perfect.  And the amount of research and writing on these topics makes my treatment of them in a movie review both challenging and suspect.  But there are some key principles and they relate to the themes of the movie.

For example, one of the key concepts underlying creativity is the notion of divergent thinking.  As opposed to convergent thinking, where people tend to think along lines that reinforce their own worldview or that of those around them, divergent thinking requires “thinking outside the box”.  But why would some people be more likely to do that than others?  Do they simply have a superior brain, or are their environments constructed differently enough that they have to go outside the box in order to resolve potential conflicts?  Although the movie doesn’t dwell on it, Spielberg was not an academic wizard. He was turned down at USC because of his grades, and never did get a college degree.  So something else is at work.

The Fabelmans goes a long way to show how Sammy’s (i.e. Spielberg’s) parents were almost diametrical opposites.  His father, a brilliant engineer, had an extremely logical and precise mind, while his mother was more of an artist with more emotional and intuitive sensibilities.  Resolving those differences can definitely require some divergent thinking because the box is simply not well defined.

Add to that Sammy’s religion.  Jews are not intrinsically more intelligent or creative than non-Jews.  But it is possible that the Jewish history and experience has created a mind-set that places members of that faith in a challenging or oppositional framework.  In The Fabelmans Sammy has multiple confrontations over his Jewishness which automatically place him, largely, outside the box.  So there is another way that his creativity might have been nurtured by external factors.

So The Fabelmans gives us insight into how Spielberg might have become such a creative force in the movie world.  What else might be contributing to his success?  Malcolm Gladwell has some interesting ideas about what makes for success.  One of them is the concept of 10,000 hours – that true success and development of talent requires practice and, although exactly how he came up with the number isn’t real clear, he seems to think that the successful people he has studied have spent 10,000 hours doing what they do.  I have no idea how many hours Spielberg has invested in making movies, but it is probably at least that.  

I think you have to go beyond that, though, to answer the question of what causes success.  Why are some people able to acquire the 10,000 hours and others not?  Clearly drive and interest are part of the equation – and Sammy/Spielberg had that.  But we also have to recognize that he grew up in a comfortable enough environment where he was able to invest that kind of time.  Although his Dad frequently referred to his movie-making as just a hobby, he also provided Sammy with expensive cameras and film editing equipment, giving him opportunities to invest 10,000 hours that many people clearly do not have.  So we can add that the luck of having a supportive environment contributed to Sammy’s ultimate success as one of the kings of Hollywood, Steven Spielberg.

The Fabelmans – Michael’s Moments

The themes of what makes for creativity and success are brilliantly set up in just the first 15 minutes of the movie.  Set in January, 1952 (when Spielberg was just six years old) Sammy is taken to see his first motion picture (in a theater of course!) The Greatest Show on Earth.  While his dad is explaining the technical process behind what makes a picture have motion, his mother is telling him that “movies are dreams..that you never forget”.  In the theater he sits squarely between his mother and father and is profoundly affected by the experience, especially a crucial train wreck scene.  He lives with the wreck in his mind and then decides he wants a train set for Hanukkah.  (It is noted that theirs is the only house on the block that does not have Christmas lights outside.)

As you can imagine, he has plans for his train and his dad isn’t too happy with those results.  But his Mom realizes what is driving Sammy and, in order to make both Sammy and his Dad happy, gives Sammy his Dad’s video recorder so that he can crash the train just once and then play it over and over again.  She also understands why he needs to do that, based on her own experiences as a creative person (and a woman living in the 1950s).  Now imagine what it means that a youngster has virtually unlimited access to a video recorder in the 1950s and think about just how many kids had that kind of opportunity!

After barely fifteen minutes of the movie, Spielberg has set all the groundwork for the remainder of the film and for Spielberg’s own remarkable success.  It is an astoundingly creative piece of filmmaking and shows just what the impact has been on the man and the rest of the film-watching world.  Everything that follows builds on those first few minutes.

The Fabelmans is a well-crafted movie by a seasoned team that seems to make moviemaking look almost too easy.  Michelle Williams carries the movie, as much as Spielberg himself does, by providing the necessary emotions that motivate and propel the action.  Judd Hirsch has a six minute scene that reinforces the power of art (he plays the mother’s brother) and also further establishes Sammy’s Jewish roots.

Ultimately, though, The Fabelmans is by, of, and for Steven Spielberg.  He made a wonderful movie about himself and his childhood roots.  I get that it was an incredibly emotional experience for him – he reportedly cried frequently during filming.  For others, it is a trip into the mind of one man.  While it definitely raises generic themes that many will find rewarding, some will chafe at the self indulgence.  For that, the audience may not be huge – it is definitely not a blockbuster, but it is a great experience.  (4*)

The Fabelmans
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