So finally, thanks to our Netflix flying elf friends, my own personal rented copy of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter dropped down the chimney, bounced in the fireplace, and landed in my DVD player. And I got to see the second of two Lincoln movies, made the same year, within a week of each other. Frabjous day indeed.
So, future generations, what do we make of this Vampire Hunter film? Especially since my wife gave it five minutes and said “you’re on your own for this one, pal.” Let me put it this way: if Timur Bekmambetov, vampire obsessed Kazahk director of Night Watch and Day Watch had decided simply to make a fun action/fantasy/horror film about, say, young Linc Abrams, set in the American frontier, ca. 1835-1865, it might have been sort of barely watchable. Maybe even kinda fun. He might even have enlisted a talented hipster like, say, Seth Grahame-Smith to come with the screenplay. That’s actually the best way to watch the thing; pretend it’s not about Lincoln. It wouldn’t be all that hard; just excise maybe five minutes of politicking and speechifying and cut all the White House exteriors, and you’ve got a fairly nifty vampire slayer flick, and not the entirely horrendously appallingly gruesomely bad insult to an American hero pile of horsepoo he ended up with. It’s not like the Lincoln stuff is integral to the plot, or that the film gives even the tiniest nod to, you know, that boring history stuff. This is, after all a film with nineteenth century dialogue that includes phrases like “I’d be okay with that,” and “let’s get this done.” Alas, the film isn’t about young Linc Abrams. It’s about that other guy, the sixteenth President guy.
So thanks, Hollywood, for what has unmistakably become the Year of Lincoln. Abe-o-phile that I am, I thought I would compare the two films in what strike me as the most salient categories. In the following paragraphs, SL stands for Spielberg Lincoln, and LVS stands for Lincoln Vampire Slayer.
Lincoln. SL: Daniel Day-Lewis creates the most indelible Lincoln ever captured on film, a ravaged Lincoln, a conniving Lincoln, a duplicitous Lincoln, a superb strategist Lincoln, a visionary Lincoln. LVS: Benjamin Walker is not half-bad, all things considered.
Mary Todd Lincoln. SL: Sally Field gives the most stunning performance of her career, capturing a Mary Todd barely clinging to mental health, though also at times a shrewd and capable political tactician. LVS: Mary Elizabeth Winstead is quite a lovely and no doubt capable actress, playing a proto-feminist Mary who realizes her true calling in life when she coolly removes a silver brooch, shoves it down a gun barrel, and shoots a vampire in the head with it.
Bad guy/villains. SL: I suppose the villain would be Lee Pace, as Fernando Wood, a brilliant, ethical, and patriotic Congressman who nonetheless opposes the Thirteenth Amendment out of misguided but deeply held convictions. LVS: Rufus Sewell, as Adam, a Southern aristocratic vampire with a British accent, who likes drinking the blood of black people, notwithstanding the financial loss he incurs with every slaughtered slave. (Economics is not this film’s strong suit, nor subtlety.)
Joshua Speed. LVS: Lincoln’s old law partner, played by Jimmi Simpson, is a central character, both in Lincoln’s early days in Springfield, and as chief of staff in his Presidential administration. SL. He’s not in the film, because historically, Joshua Speed had no role in the Lincoln administration.
Kick-ass Black Sidekick character: SL: Gloria Reuben is deeply moving in the quiet role of Elizabeth Keckley, Mary Todd Lincoln’s devoted personal servant, especially in quick cutaway reaction shots whenever viciously racist comments become part of the political debate at the heart of the film. LVS: Anthony Mackie plays Will Johnson, Lincoln’s lifelong free black friend, who eventually becomes his right-hand vampire slayer, especially in the film’s climactic fight scene on top of a moving train.
Gettysburg: LVS: The film apparently labors under the misapprehension that the first day of Gettysburg was a disaster because the North was facing vampires and not human Confederate soldiers. The day is won, however, when Lincoln is able to melt down the White House silverware in time to cast silver bullets and get them to Pennsylvania overnight, so soldiers will have appropriate ammo for vampires. I mean, duh. SL: The film is set well after the battle took place. A snippet of the Gettysburg address is recited at the beginning of the film by two young soldiers trying to impress their commander-in-chief, before the final stirring sentences are recited by a young black soldier who has committed them to memory. A comical scene becomes powerfully emotional.
Conflicted second lead. SL: Tommy Lee Jones is brilliant as Thaddeus Stevens, the fire-breathing abolitionist who Lincoln has to persuade to temper his zeal, to not drive away moderates in the House whose votes are essential to passing the amendment. LVH: Dominic Cooper, as Henry Sturges, who trains the young Lincoln in how to kill vampires despite being, turns out, one himself. Cooper does a nice job making a preposterous character sort of believable.
Facial Hair. SL. The nineteenth century was a time of amazing facial hair, and Spielberg uses it to full advantage, distinguishing the dozens of Congressmen visually by featuring their astounding varieties of face fuzz. LVH. Basically all the characters are disappointingly clean-shaven, except the older Lincoln and, like, Jefferson Davis for his two-and-a-half seconds on-screen.
Crass foolishness and patent script idiocy. SL: Couldn’t think of any. LVH: Too numerous to count.
Conclusion: Gosh, hard to say. Maybe the Spielberg Lincoln is just a tiny bit better film. A little better. Just a smidge.