With the release this past week of Steven Spielberg’s much anticipated trailer for his upcoming film Lincoln, I thought it only prudent to dive into the ever-popular franchise of biopics. Accurately trying to depict a historical figure can be difficult for many reasons (see Clint Eastwood’s recent bore of an endeavor J. Edgar and you’ll understand. For one, if the person isn’t alive anymore, a filmmaker is tasked with creating their own interpretation of the character based on knowledge and whatever source material is available. It’s a slippery slope as when it comes to famously loved (or hated) figures of yesteryear, people tend to have preconceived notions of who these people were and how they should continue to be remembered, and dare anything mar them there could be hell to pay (especially at the box office). Let’s examine a few who got it right and a few who it got it wrong.
It’s pretty much a given that I have to start out by listing the magnificent epic to-end-all epics, Lawrence of Arabia. The 1962 film is based on the life of British Army office T. E. Lawrence who played a part in the Arab Revolt at the advent of the First World War. The sweeping score, staggering desert visuals, and Peter O’Toole’s astounding performance all contribute to it being considered one of the best films of all time. As with most biopics, it has come under criticism for claims of historical inaccuracy, and while the filmmakers did take some fictional liberties, it is widely considered to be grounded by accepted historical facts and Lawrence’s own writing of events. If you have more than a few hours to kill (the 216 minute run time is not for the faint of heart), do yourself a favor and bask in some genuine filmmaking glory.
It’s kind of unfortunate that a film like Lawrence of Arabia made epic historical biographies look so effortless because many more have attempted to replicate such success with middling results. Take, for example, Oliver Stone’s 2004 Alexander the Great mess Alexander. Rather than go for any real depth of character, Stone seemed to be of the mind: “Let’s just throw a bunch of beautiful people together in some costumes and see what happens. And…Go!”
It proves, in my mind at least, what really makes a biopic a success or a failure: the audience’s investment in the character. I felt scarred when Sean Penn as Harvey Milk was senselessly gunned down in Milk. And I was touched and extremely empathetic to Ed Wood and Bela Lugosi’s endless desire to make their mark in the film industry, regardless of how small or silly, in Tim Burton’s fantastic Ed Wood. I can even feel invested in Jake LaMotta’s downfall in Raging Bull. On the opposite end of the spectrum though, do I care that Keira Knightley is a former model turned bounty hunter in Domino? Not really. Just as watching Colin Farrell cavort around the screen with his attractive co-stars doesn’t really inspire anything other than apathy.
To bring things full circle, let’s return back to Mr. Spielberg. He’s not new to the genre of biopics, having created the Oscar winning and staggering Schindler’s List in 1993. For a long time I wondered why a major studio hadn’t considered doing a Lincoln flick before, and then I came to the conclusion that they were all just waiting for the ever capable ‘Berg himself to take the reins. And with Daniel Day-Lewis filling the man’s shoes (such a method actor he could put on orange face paint, a green wig and tell me he was an Oompa Loompa and I’d believe him), I have no doubt that the truth that will be self-evident is how great it is.
Check out the new trailer for Lincoln below!