thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Spielberg’s Lincoln and the Problem with Biopics

In Film on December 3, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Sarah T.

Y So Srs, Though.

Y So Srs, Though.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a movie for squares, which means that it’s going to be swimming in Oscars like Scrooge McDuck (also kind of a square, incidentally). Everyone at the Academy Awards will be excited to see Daniel Day-Lewis, because if low-information memory serves he’s a Belgian shoe cobbler who only emerges from his boot-house once every seven years to remind everybody how long his legs are. Remember Gangs of New York? The man was like a daddy long legs on stilts.

As Lincoln, he’s kind of wheezy and stooped and noble like a chipped ceramic lion. I can’t say I got much feel for the inner workings of our nation’s 16th president, which probably isn’t Day-Lewis’s fault. At this point in American history, we’ve canonized Lincoln so much that I can’t imagine any mainstream filmmaker daring to bring him down to earth. This is a movie that, I kid you not, ends with a close-up of the dead president as seen through a candle, and then a tiny ghost version of Lincoln shows up inside the candle flame, giving a speech, which is very distracting. Nobody reacts onscreen, because in the 19th century this was just one of the hazards of home decor. Napoleon Bonaparte’s poltergeist hung out in snuffbox for years and nobody could snuff anything. Then the candle dissolves so that tiny ghost Lincoln becomes Lincoln in a flashback, completing his speech, but I couldn’t pay any attention to what he was saying because I was too busy being shocked by the most over-the-top ending since ET flew away in a Skittles rainbow. No knocks to ET. It’s an okay move when you’re making the world’s most perfect alien fairy tale. But the Hall of Presidents has more grit than this movie.

Pretty much the only fun parts of Lincoln are listening to Tommy Lee Jones (as Thaddeus Stevens) relish calling the guy from Pushing Daisies inventively mean names and thinking about the historical role of hairpieces in the legislative process. The only moving part of Lincoln also involves Tommy Lee Jones. I found myself wishing that the whole movie was about him, though then I’m sure his character would have just had to shoulder Spielberg’s earnest self-seriousness.

The movie got me thinking: When was the last time I saw a biopic that wasn’t a snoozefest? I think I might hate this genre. The Queen, The King’s Speech, Walk the Line, Ray, Capote, A Beautiful Mind: I call these critically acclaimed films Safety Ambien. Filmmakers seem to lose their powers of imagination–and any impulse toward risk–when they’re confronted with larger-than-life historical figures. Instead they want to be respectable, which is a lovely quality in a headmaster or a piece of toast but less desirable in arts and entertainment. Also, maybe most people’s lives just aren’t interesting enough to make into movies. Even the most fascinating parts take like 15 minutes and then they’re over, which would be helpful for me to remember the next time I’m getting resentful about how boring it is to clean the bathtub.

I just made a quick mental list of all the biopics I have ever liked, and it is three items long:

Amadeus

Persepolis

Milk

Obviously, though, I haven’t seen All the Biopics there are. (If I had, I guess I would have died of boredom and I’d be talking to you from inside a candle.) Are there less staid and stately ones out there? And do you think we just shouldn’t be allowed to make movies about real people unless those movies involve time travel? At least Bill and Ted knew how to make history come alive.

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  1. hilarious. Also, I had a feeling the Lincoln movie would be terrible (or rather, that I would not enjoy it AT ALL). That said, I actually really liked both Ray and Walk the Line! And Milk too. I’m going to try to think of other ones that I’ve liked … But it’s hard since mostly all I want to watch are mysteries, which don’t generally go with the biopic genre (also, I wish Gypsy counted as a biopic, because it is the best)…

  2. I have a student working on a Civil War history project right now and reading a bunch of Lincoln’s speeches. I am a closeted Civil War buff (I dream of riding in a reenactment, hiding my gender like women really did then). I just go nuts over the way Lincoln is canonized, so, while I haven’t seen Lincoln yet, I am guessing I should watch it in a house where I am free to yell and throw things at the screen during dramatic candle monologues. Where is hindsight? How is it we can ignore all the calls Lincoln made for political expediency and compromise and call him glorious but then whirl around and villainize Obama for the same things?

    But now I’m ranting. Point being, my student and I decided that, if you love this time period like we do, you should probably just watch the 11 hour Ken Burns documentary, because while it is long it is way more nuanced and hence more likely to be thought-provoking background to things like scrubbing the bathtub rather than failed centerpieces of emotional schlock.

  3. This is hilarious. And yes, biopics are lame, and are full of lies. How else can you explain the fact that people all seem to have very complicated and unique lives, and yet every biopic has the exact same plot? I mean, most biopics, especially those about artists are so similar to each other that you could just swap out the names and they’d still be the same.

  4. I haven’t seen ‘Lincoln’ yet but haven’t been able to generate much excitement for it. I’m sure the acting and the costumes are great, blah blah blah, but it looks so booooring. I did like Walk the Line but that’s almost a biopic of a relationship as much as single person–that relationship is still heavily idealized but no more so than in any romantic comedy.

    How about ‘My Week with Marilyn,’ which isn’t a biopic so much as a character study of an historical figure? Or ‘I’m Not There,’ which just embraces the mythologizing and runs with it? I know some thought those were boring too but do they escape the legit concern raised in this post?

  5. […] I resisted this one. Even before it received a thumb’s down from GLG’s Sarah T., I thought it looked like Spielberg’s usual sentimental schmaltz and a typically-spectacular […]

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