Lincoln Preview: Does Spielberg Need A Hit?

On November 16th, one of the most important figures in 20th century cinema will release a film about an iconic American president, with one of the most enigmatic, elusive and electrifying actors of his generation in the title role.  Everything should point to glittering, unfettered success.  But Lincoln is a Steven Spielberg film, and increasingly large numbers of people would have you believe that for all the power and mystique his name still carries, Spielberg needs his latest offering to be a success in order to save a career on the verge of teetering into mediocrity.

While it is true that past achievements in any walk of life should be respected, they should not have any bearing on how subsequent contemporary work is received.  In Spielberg’s case however, the sheer weight, or burden, of his previous work commands so much respect and admiration that patience with more recent, arguably lesser works is in increasingly short supply.  This is the man who, between 1971 and 1998 directed Duel, The Sugarland Express, Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, the original Indiana Jones trilogy, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Empire Of The Sun, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.  Critics harshly accuse him of being sentimental or mawkish at times, but it would take a churlish person to argue that at the very least, that is an incredibly impressive list of films to be credited with.

Simply as a director then, it is by no means a flippant argument to claim that Spielberg is worthy of being mentioned alongside such cinematic greats as Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, Marlon Brando and Alfred Hitchcock when it comes to his effect and legacy on the film industry.  But directing has not been his only gift, as his influence and wealth have also helped the Back To The Future trilogy, Poltergeist, Gremlins, The Goonies, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Land Before Time and Twister into existence in his role as a serial producer.

While these films are certainly not all classics in the traditional sense, they fall into varying categories as cult, experimental or now qualify as nostalgic cornerstones of childhood memories for children of the 1980s and 1990s.  This is a man whose influence and vision have directly affected innumerable people across the globe.  There have been very few other figures in film who have found bridging the sometimes perilous gap between critical and box office success seem so easy, but it is this consistent achievement in pleasing the majority of people the majority of the time that makes Spielberg the unique force that he is.  His ability to combine deep, emotionally affecting stories with cutting edge special effects means that more often than not his films are not only a success at the box office, they also go on to age incredibly well.  Jaws was made in 1975 and is still one of the greatest horror stories ever made, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind was made in 1977 and is still one of the premier takes on alien contact, and E.T. was made in 1982 and still has the ability to make familiarised and desensitised audience weep like babies.

While it is plainly obvious that Spielberg’s returns since the turn of the century haven’t been as impressive as his golden era, it would have been an incredibly miraculous achievement if he were to maintain such a relentless pace of excellence, let alone exceed it.  Since the year 2000 Spielberg has directed A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal, War Of The Worlds, Munich, Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, The Adventures Of Tin Tin and War Horse.  A mixed bunch, certainly.  The first two films mentioned are underrated and deserving of more praise, while at the opposite end of the scale, War Of The Worlds and …Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull are undoubted low points; but then so was 1941, and that was sandwiched between Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Raiders Of The Lost Ark back in 1979.  Everything else in between has been a pleasant mixture of varied but flawed films that have been criticised too harshly because of the man behind the camera and his inability to be constantly fantastic.

A primary criticism that seems to frustrate onlookers the most is that in recent years Spielberg hasn’t seemed willing to reach or strive, either for excellence or compelling stories, seemingly choosing safe stories over a challenge.  But again, the point may have been missed.  Spielberg has always juggled juxtaposing subject matters with apparent ease, be it depicting the horrors of the Holocaust, creating children’s classics, delving into heated political topics or forging iconic adventure romps involving everything from Nazis to dinosaurs.  Moreover, it isn’t only subject matter that fails to shackle Spielberg, but visual style, too.  The chilling monochrome in Schindler’s List, the puppetry of E.T., the combined CGI and model dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, and now the recent animated rendition of Tin Tin, Spielberg’s variation of subject matter is only matched by the way he chooses to present his stories.

The only criticism to befall Spielberg in recent years that does carry some weight would be his seemingly well intentioned wish to get other’s visions and dreams on screen, only for them to fall short of expectation.  In the recent past Spielberg has put his name to all three Transformers movies, Eagle Eye, Super 8, Cowboys & Aliens and Real Steel.  Not only that, but on the horizon there is a fifth Indian Jones film, a fourth Transformers film, a Real Steel sequel and a fourth Jurassic Park film.  The problem here does not apply strictly to Spielberg, though, as the paucity of originality in Hollywood is endemic of the entire film making industry and shows no signs of abating.  In this sense, then, Lincoln should be keenly anticipated all the more because it is an increasingly rare opportunity to see one of the greatest working storytellers presenting a new piece of original work, and if it should happen to fall short of his 1970s, 1980s and 1990s standards, just remember that the same can be said of almost every other contemporary release, too.

You can see the Lincoln trailer here

Rob Stimpson