Lincoln showcases Steven Spielberg in homework mode. It’s the product of a drudge staying up all night hoping to pass his Oscar exam. But Lincoln won’t win any Oscars, and doesn’t deserve any. It’s a hopeless bore that, in an attempt to humanize an icon, turns him into a mere politician.
The film has a couple of very strong points but otherwise it’s a near total write-off and a waste of your time. Its best aspect is the wonderful lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the finest actors living and an artist who never ceases to challenge himself. Most actors would have been so excited by the prospect of playing Honest Abe that they would not have been able to resist playing the role as if all the angels of History were singing a backup chorus at every moment. But while he was living his life, Lincoln was just a man, one with a thin, wispy voice, a sadly nutty wife (Sally Field, who can’t resist hamming it up) and humble surroundings. By being so gentle and restrained, Day-Lewis makes you lean forward to hear every word and marvel at Lincoln’s judgment.
But Spielberg and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, otherwise flounder. Intent on avoiding cliche, Spielberg keeps swerving around the most dramatic moments. For instance, when the film begins (with a gritty battle scene of Union and Confederate soldiers wrestling in mud that unfortunately has a vaguely comical aspect), Lincoln has already given the Gettsyburg address, and we hear only portions of it recited from memory by the soldiers he is speaking to. This encounter with black Union troops seems forced and improbable, not least for the weirdly casual, even dismissive, way these ordinary soldiers treat their president. Wouldn’t they be even a little bit intimidated?
As the film goes on the big majority of it takes place in 1865, when Lincoln is persuaded that his Emancipation Proclamation had no legal basis because state laws can’t simply be overruled by executive fiat. To formally abolish slavery, Lincoln’s Republicans fight to pass the 13th Amendment during a lame-duck January session of Congress. The Republicans have won in a sweep, but not all of them want to outlaw slavery, so the party sets about rounding up votes from the institutionally racist Democratic party. Democrats who have lost their seats in the November election, Lincoln’s aides reason, no longer have any reason not to vote with their consciences and are free to do the right thing for its own sake.
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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