What follows on screen is well over an hour of political backroom maneuvering in which Lincoln is not even the central figure. The hero, to the radical playwright Kushner (who also wrote Spielberg’s Munich, a hand-wringing apology for Israeli assassinations of Palestinian terrorists), is the radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, played by Tommy Lee Jones in a tiresomely familiar manner that will remind you of pretty much every other Tommy Lee Jones performance.
David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, James Spader and John Hawkes come and go as cabinet members and lawmakers to not much effect as Kushner’s script gets lost in a procedural funk. It’s like watching The Congressional Record of January 1865: The Movie. Spielberg’s big idea with the title character is, in scene after scene, to have him preside over a table of squabbling factions then quietly take command of the room with a mild but devastating anecdote. Meanwhile Spielberg slowly, slowly brings his camera in on the great man as the room comes to a hush. We’re meant to be left awed by Lincoln’s wisdom. Instead, what we mainly notice is the shameless hackery of using the same gimmick repeatedly. About the fourth time Spielberg starts to wind up one of these spiels, one of the characters protests: yet another droll story? Again? Do we have to? It’s the funniest moment in the movie, mainly because Spielberg doesn’t seem to realize the joke is on him.
Starting at right about the same time as flu season each year, Oscar-itis is a serious disease at the multiplex. Movies that pander to an idea of what Oscar voters want (when in fact in recent years they tend to reject stodgy set pieces and go with nimbler items like The Hurt Locker or The Artist) are too slow, too dull, too preachy, too humorless and too obvious in their intent. True, there is (a little) suspense about how the 13th amendment fight will turn out, but Kushner is hardly a master of suspense. What he’s really good at is writing firebrand left-wing speeches, but the half-dozen of them in Lincoln don’t make it an interesting or entertaining movie.
How about a better Abe Lincoln movie instead?
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