This week Joe West asks whether Spielberg’s approach to historic adaptations is too po-faced.
The first trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln arrived this week, full of the pomp and circumstance which usually accompany his more serious blockbuster projects. Films like Munich, Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List all treat their troubling subject matters with appropriate solemnity, but they deal with events that are still within living memory. When delving further back in history, filmmakers should feel at greater liberty to energise a potentially dry subject matter. Too much reverence can get in the way of telling a good story.
That’s perhaps why Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was such a well targeted pastiche of the typical historical film. It appeared to take itself incredibly seriously, documenting the fictitious double life of an American president’s secret battle against confederate bloodsuckers, but linking this to real world events as if it were an accurate biographical recounting. The results were not to everyone’s tastes, but it highlighted that excessive seriousness can end up making a film look silly.
In fact Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Honest Abe in Spielberg’s film, has experience of working on projects which turn historic events into compellingly kinetic cinema without straying into the realm of excessive respectfulness. Last of the Mohicans, Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood brought their individual eras to life vividly, without being bogged down in sentimentality or retrospective awe.
Of course not having seen Lincoln in any form other than its trailer, it’s difficult to judge what the finished product will be like. I can only guess that, based on Spielberg’s track record and the creativity-crushing weight of history which comes with covering such a famous man during a defining era in America’s past, we won’t be seeing much of Lincoln as a character in his own right. He is a caricature and symbol, for sure, but not a knowable human being. A bit like Batman, or Coco the Coco Pops monkey.