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Lincoln (2012)

February 4, 2013

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written by: Tony Kushner

produced by: Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy

directed by: Steven Spielberg

rating: rated PG-13 (for an intense scene of war violence, some images of violence and brief strong language)

runtime: 105 min. 

U.S. release date: November 9, 2012

 

Just by the title, many have and will think the latest Steven Spielberg film is an epic feature telling the life story of the 16th president of the United States of America. Thankfully, “Lincoln” is not another exhausting biopic that covers the entire life of an iconic figure, but rather focuses on an important time in the nation and Honest Abe’s career. Although that’s a preferable approach to the genre, “Lincoln” unfortunately feels like a series of speeches and pontificating moments injected into a film that would rather lionize Lincoln than humanize him. Spielberg brings the expected cinematic style we’ve seen in his other historical films (“Schindler’s List” and “Munich”) and Daniel Day-Lewis delivers another award-winning performance, but something happened in the months since I’ve seen this Best Picture nominee.

Initially, I felt this was a fine feature, sitting nicely alongside the legendary director’s dramatic work with an incredible (albeit expected) performance by Day-Lewis. But over time, the film’s luster dissipated. Realizing I had problems with some of the acting and the overall execution of the story, I became frustrated. It also became perplexed by the praise some of over-acting was earning. It may have looked great, with expected fine cinematography by Spielberg’s longtime collaborator Janusz Kaminski, but the screenplay by playwright Tony Kushner (which is also receiving heaps of praise) is another thing altogether. Rich in grandiose posturing and cloying melodrama, it made for an artificial experience. A rinse and repeat formula of pretentious theatricality and finger-wagging debate team antics.

 

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At least the film situates itself during an interesting time for the newly re-elected President, who had begun his second term with the sole focus of passing the 13th Amendment, one that would completely abolish slavery. As the Civil War continues, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) believes his Emancipation Proclamation will cease the death toll and heal a torn nation. While Washington pessimism abounds, with even Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and radical Republican head Thaddeus Stevens (a tired looking Tommy Lee Jones in a bad wig) second-guessing the President’s goal and vision. Despite the gnawing concerns from his contentious First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field, sorely miscast) and the duties of fathering young Tad (Gulliver McGrath) and the wanna-be soldier, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in an unnecessary role), Lincoln remains steadfast in his determination.

With resistance to the Amendment increasing, Lincoln focuses on getting enough votes to win. This requires employing a trio of lobbyists (played with comedy and wit by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) to hit up persuasive congressmen, such as George Yeoman (Michael Stuhlbarg, “Men in Black 3”),  Ohio Congressman Clay Hawkins (Walton Goggins) and Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley). They encounter inevitable walls, requiring Lincoln himself to do some door-knocking in order to persuade voters pivotal to the cause. Throughout the uphill battle, raw nerves of bitterness are exposed while stubborn dispositions remain unconvinced, testing the President’s resolve in an already divisive period in America.

“Lincoln” feels like very familiar territory for Spielberg, but somehow just doesn’t seem identifiable as a Spielberg movie, if that makes any sense. It pains me to say it, but it’s as if anyone could’ve accomplished what the director does here. I want to believe he’s not totally to blame for creating what essentially comes across like a pretentiously “important” film, but he is the one in charge. “Lincoln” could also be seen as a stately cousin to Spielberg’s other slavery film, “Amistad” from 1997. Both of them are swollen with Triumph of the Human Spirit elements, waving a flag of Historical Importance in our face without allowing any real discovery for the viewer.

 

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I haven’t read the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which the film is loosely based on,  but I want to believe it has a more in-depth look at the political machinations and maneuvers that led to the passing of the abolishment of slavery. Kushner’s script comes across as Sorkin Lite, wanting to be as compelling and absorbing as the best of West Wing, but instead winds up being a leaden Best Moments collection. So much of  “Lincoln” feels spelled out for us by way of political monologuing and blustery Cliff Note exposition.

There is a moment in the film that offers more than the expected ground that is usually covered in films focusing on the slavery debate. It’s when we hear a response from Alexander Stephens (understatedly played by Hailey), the Georgia governor who responds to an inevitable loss by expressing how abolishing slavery will hurt the economy. That right there is an interesting angle on the subject, one that I would’ve wanted to see more of and one that is rarely touched upon in portrayals of the period. Southern racism and cruelty was apparent, but this concern for their economy was something that could’ve been explored more here. After all, if we’re going to see arguments, then why not an equally-balanced one?

We know slavery is awful, but the screenplay here could’ve benefitted from shining more light on the position of a pro-slavery side, in order to get a more well-rounded view of the kind of opposition Lincoln was up against. In all its labored length, it’s too bad “Lincoln” couldn’t embellish on such glossed over positions. Instead of an examination of its characters, that includes the President himself, Spielberg focuses on creating cinematic moments out of historically accurate set pieces.

 

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One absolute certainty about “Lincoln” is how phenomenal Daniel Day-Lewis is. Not that anyone doubted he would be excellent, but he has Lincoln down. He masters what you’d imagine to be Lincoln’s voice, gate and posture as well as bringing wry humor to his patient analytical demeanor. But his portrayal lacks a real warmth to the iconic figure and that’s probably due to what the material is asking of the actor. At least Day-Lewis is easily the most transformative of the actors in the film, disappearing into his role to an almost unrecognizable state. The same cannot be said by the increasingly lauded work of Field and Jones, who seem like they are playing dress-up at a historical reenactment production. It’s jarring to go from watching Day-Lewis lose himself in Lincoln to seeing two supporting roles stand out because the actors are more noticeable than the characters they are playing.

Another expected bit of excellence can be found in John Williams score. It seems like the man has been around forever, creating scores that so perfectly match the tone and approach the director (usually Spielberg) has for each film. This is a subtler soundtrack than the syrupy “War Horse” and a nice addition to those Williams completists out there. While I prefer Williams’ classic works (Star Wars, Superman and Indiana Jones), I also appreciate when he branches out (“Presumed Innocent” and “Catch Me If You Can”) as well as these period films. But, not even another great score from a master composer can change how I feel about this film.

I really hate to admit it, since I wanted to like “Lincoln” more than I did, but the end result is a drawn-out bore of a film that suffers from Spielbeg schmaltz.  There is nothing inventive or original about the way this time in Lincoln’s life is told, nor does it ever care to focus on who Lincoln was. It has its moments and admirable qualities, but it left me cold and unfulfilled.

 

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RATING: **1/2

 

 

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