Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Premise: Set at the end of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) attempts to pass the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, which will outlaw slavery.
What Works: Lincoln is an example of experienced filmmakers and performers working at the top of their talents. Director Steven Spielberg brings his sense of showmanship and historical storytelling to a picture about the legislative process and he manages to make that process sufficiently engaging and dramatic. That is not an easy task. Lincoln is two and a half hours of old white men sitting around tables and debating legislation, but the film is so well made that its length and lack of action is barely noticeable. Lincoln was shot and edited by longtime Spielberg collaborators Janusz Kaminski and Michael Kahn, respectively. The cinematography of Lincoln includes a lot of dark but beautiful compositions and the camera movement is often restrained; thankfully, Spielberg and Kaminski do not resort to The West Wing-style walking-and-talking scenes and they allow the actors to convey the gravity of the drama without punching it up through intrusive camera techniques. The film is also edited very tightly. Scenes transition effectively and despite its two-and-a-half hour running time Lincoln moves along at a brisk pace without feeling rushed. The film was written by Tony Kushner and it is a very witty and intelligent script. The dialogue is written in a formal syntax but it has a fluidity that makes it understandable. The efforts of the talents behind-the-camera enable the actors of Lincoln to deliver some very impressive performances. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Abraham Lincoln and in typical Day-Lewis fashion he inhabits the character with the full breadth of his screen presence. As a cinematic president, Day-Lewis’ performance is distinguished in that he underplays Lincoln’s historical shadow and emphasizes his human dimensions with his wit and humor. The film also has strong supporting performances by Sally Field as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens. Field is a strong counterpoint to Day-Lewis, as Mary Todd-Lincoln is passionate and vocal where her husband is staid and the relationship between them is convincing and adds an emotional dimension to what is largely an intellectual story. Jones is excellent as Stevens and in some ways his subplot is the most interesting element of the story. Stevens envisions contemporary ideas of full equality among people but he has to settle for less than that and the compromises that Stevens has to make in order to achieve a practical end give the film some of its best moments.
What Doesn’t: Lincoln is satisfying but only just. Like its subject, Lincoln is quiet and thoughtful but the movie comes across emotionally flat. This is partly a result of its scope. Lincoln is a political film in the purest sense; it is about building a coalition by manipulating the agendas and interests of involved parties. Because Lincoln is about the legislative process, the horrors of slavery fall outside the frame of the story. As a result, there isn’t anything concrete at stake and the film lacks an emotional appeal that would endear the drama to the audience. This becomes most apparent in the ending. The film goes beyond the vote on the amendment with a denouement that includes Lincoln’s assassination. This comes across as tagged on as though the filmmakers are in search of an ending but the assassination does not emerge organically from the plot. The other fault of Lincoln is that it is too safe. One of the distinguishing characteristics of Spielberg’s historical dramas is that they took risks. Schindler’s List defied commercial interests as a three-hour black and white movie about a depressing subject; similarly, Amistad depicted the inhumanity of slavery and Munich explored the moral implications of counterterrorism. Nothing about Lincoln is bold. It is undeniably well crafted and acted but the moviemakers also take care to not upset the audience (or the voters in next year’s Academy Awards) with anything that is challenging.
Bottom Line: Lincoln is well made but it suffers from being too safe and too conventional. The film is reminiscent of many Academy Award winners like Gandhi and The King’s Speech, prestige pictures that were critically lauded but lack nerve. Aside from Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, Lincoln is not a very memorable film and although it is a good movie it falls short of Spielberg’s other attempts at historical drama.
Episode: #417 (December 2, 2012)