Wednesday, November 28, 2012


For anyone seeking truth in advertising, this is it. Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is exactly what it purports to be: a unique portrait of the man who ended the Civil War and passed the 13th Amendment, effectively ending slavery in America.  It is a film whose existence and creation seems almost like an inevitability; who else could have made a movie about America's favorite President than America's favorite filmmaker?

After the overwrought and melodramatic War Horse and the cartoonishly fun The Adventures of Tintin, I began to wonder if Spielberg would ever be able to find the sweet-spot in-between the two that represents the best of his work.  Historical biopics are typically characterized by being incredibly stuffy and overly sentimental.  It is the rare film that is able to actually portray the person that may have existed instead of the legend that person left in their wake.

From the start, Lincoln appears to have suffered the same fate as its peers and to have indulged in Spielberg's worst characteristic, an overactive sentimentalism (see the ending of War of the Worlds.)  After an intense and nightmarish battle, two soldiers, eager for the war to end, address the surprisingly casual Lincoln and begin to recite from memory the Gettysburg Address.  Are we meant to believe that after an excruciating battle that these two men were of the presence of mind and composure to recite back a speech that the country had only just heard for the first time? 

This immediately puts forward the notion that Lincoln isnt a film about "Lincoln the man" but about "Lincoln the statue", as reflected by Lincoln's seated posture.  It is unfortunate that Lincoln begins in such a clunky way because the rest of the film stands in stark contrast with this idealistic characterization of the times.  Lincoln quickly proves it isn't a typical Hollywood historical-epic but actually a film about secret back-room politics and vicious legislation.  Even more surprising is that it can be quite fun at times.

Tony Kushner's screenplay, John Williams's score, and Janusz Kaminski's cinematography are all strong here but never quiet excellent enough to stand out above the real star of Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis.  It should come to no surprise that the machinations of Lincoln's plot are anything but shocking, it is history after-all.  So, if anything, Lincoln will be remembered for Day-Lewis's performance as the legendary Abraham Lincoln, a man so steeped in American myth that weve carved his face into the side of a mountain.

However, his Lincoln is anything but chiseled out of stone, except when he wants to be.  Much of the film features an aging Lincoln, wrapped warmly in an old wool blanket, as he wanders the lonely White House.  Day-Lewis's portrayal of Lincoln isn't in the same ballpark as his actor peers; in fact he might not even be playing the same sport.  Scenes that feel frivolous or uneven, particularly any scene featuring Lincoln's troubled domestic life, are saved by the sure-footed austerity of his personification... no, pure embodiment of Abraham Lincoln.

From his gait to his high-pitched manner of speech, Day-Lewis's portrayal offers that rare experience that becomes more than just an observation of a character.  It is as if we are getting the impossible, the ability to spend time with and get to know the real Abraham Lincoln.

The difficulty of Lincoln's task, passing the 13th Amendment, is made all too clear and provides an interesting parallel with the politics of today.  If anything, the film serves as a reminder that even the great politicians like Lincoln have had to resort to pushing the limits of our democracy and back-room dealings of ill repute in order to do what was right to not only heal a divided nation but further the cause of equal rights.

Is it fair to want more out of a movie than an honest presentation of the truth?  Im not sure.  For most of its length, I found Lincoln to be a moderately engaging if not educational piece of cinema.  It is hard to be surprised by history, particularly when the villains are so horribly and inarguably wrong, and so everyones mileage with Lincoln may vary. 

In this way it is like an inkblot test.  Do you love history, legislation, and arguments over the fundamental nature of freedom?  Then Lincoln will work for you for the most part.  It is the other, narratively awkward, moments that slow the film down.  Most notably inert and unnecessary is a subplot featuring Lincolns rebellious son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that never quite goes anywhere.

Lincoln can be misguided in its melodrama and reverence at times, but mainly Spielberg, whose visual style is almost unrecognizable here, understands that with Daniel Day-Lewis as his lead the film is in good hands.  The troubled genius of Lincoln, our country's greatest politician, as portrayed in Lincoln is a fresh reminder that it took a person, flaws and all, to make the changes our country needed.

3 / 4 Reels


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