Monday, May 13, 2013
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Lee Pace, Tim Blake Nelson, Dane DeHaan, Joseph Cross, Gloria Reuben
Running Time: 150 min.
★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
A talky slog through a very specific point in American history, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln probably would have been better served with the title, The Passing of the 13th Amendment or maybe even Team of Rivals, the Doris Kearns Goodwin biography on which it's partially based. Then again, advertising and marketing still wouldn't fix most of the problems associated with a film that makes the 16th President a supporting player in what feels like the world's longest episode of The West Wing. Where it earns points is in impeccable period accuracy and an Oscar-winning performance from Daniel Day-Lewis that's every bit as impressive as you'd expect and then some. History buffs will eat this up, even if we're left with the nagging feeling that, barring a few notable exceptions, Spielberg doesn't give us anything that couldn't be gleaned from doing some reading.
As much as many reject standard, by-the-numbers biopics on political figures, I couldn't help but think that approach would have actually been welcome here, as the choice to only depict Lincoln's last four months in office (and of his life) seem to be almost too narrow a focus. And yet, that was easily the most interesting period so Spielberg's caught between a rock and a hard place. He responds with his most un-Spielbergian effort yet, completely abandoning the sentimentality usually associated with his work in favor of a straight, emotionless recitation of history. In that sense, the film is a welcome departure, as he makes the wise decision to get out of his own way. Other than an attempted portrayal of Lincoln as a saintly, Gandhi-like figure (that's mostly transcended by Lewis' riveting turn) there's little that would indicate it's even a Spielberg picture. You'd figure that would be a good thing. Instead, it creates an unusual dichotomy that results in a mild letdown. Albeit a really well-made one.
The film primarily focuses on President Lincoln's attempts in 1865 to obtain passage for the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery in the House of Representatives. To do this he not only needs the necessary minimum of 20 votes from the Democrats but also, without exception, the full support of the Republicans. It's not as easy as it seems and much of the verbal sparring scripted by Tony Kushner centers around the president's political maneuvering, which is often controversial. Of course, we know he eventually comes out with the win, only to weeks later lose his life to an assassin's bullet, but Spielberg shows the resistance he faced pulling that monumental victory off. Most of those battles involve an unlikely ally in Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who gets to to deliver some of the film's sharpest insults, proving that politics was just as dirty then as it is now. But for all who are in favor of the amendment's passage, there are just as many who aren't. Namely outspoken Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), and even the emotional First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), whom the President has to constantly placate due to her wild mood swings and fears of their returning son Robert Todd's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) desire to join the Union Army.
It's a strange complaint to level against a Spielberg film that it isn't emotionally manipulative enough, but oddly, that's the case here. It's a political procedural devoid of manufactured drama, and even as someone who usually appreciates that approach in other genres, it's dry and talky to the point that I sometimes found myself losing patience and just zoning out. A key factor as to why (aside from the material's sheer denseness) is that it just isn't visually interesting. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has collaborated with Spielberg many times in the past with enormously successful results, but three quarters of the film is shot in dark, dingy corridors and musty rooms. At times it's almost too dark to even see what's happening, which maybe doesn't matter since, most of the time, not a lot is. For example, there's exactly one shot of the White House, which is unusual, because if any historical period presented a golden opportunity for sweeping visual grandeur on screen it was this one. Instead, the whole thing feels kind of claustrophobic with most the film confined to offices and courtrooms.
Luckily, we still have Daniel-Day Lewis, who inhabits every scene, telling stories and providing valuable insight into Lincoln's politics and morals. It almost seems as if every revelation that comes forth about the man is contained entirely in his performance. Everything else, we pretty much knew already. He's the reason to see this. The voice, the look, the tone of speaking. There are so many points where you're taken aback by the way he delivers a line and forced to ask yourself, "Lincoln said THAT? Really?" At some points it's actually funny to hear the things that come out of his mouth because we've grown so accustomed to history dictating to us the mythic terms under which he's supposed to be viewed. But Day-Lewis humanizes him, which might end up being the film's greatest success. One of the most memorable moments comes at the start when he's interacting with a pair of Union soldiers reciting to him the Gettysburg Address. It's a transformative performance in search of a better movie that focuses entirely on Lincoln rather than the nuts and bolts of the political process.
Make no mistake that this is all about the 13th Amendment, with non of the other sub-plots even getting off the ground. Unforgivably, a mustachioed Joseph Gordon-Levitt is wasted as Robert Todd Lincoln, while little is explored regarding the President's marriage aside from a shrieking Sally Field making it perfectly clear that the Mary Todd was a real basketcase and the polar opposite of her calm, serene husband. Of the many supporting players, it's really Jones who chews into his role as stubborn Thaddeus Stevens with grumpy gusto, stealing nearly every scene he's in. Top to bottom, it's a loaded cast, with David Strathairn, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Lukas Haas, Dane DeHaan, Jared Harris, Adam Driver, Walter Goggins and Bruce McGill all contributing in some form or another in wide variety of small and larger parts. More fun than the actual film might be trying to spot and recognize them all. Especially James Spader, who's strangely hilarious as an determined Republican party member lobbying for the amendment's passage.
It's easy to fault Spielberg for continuing a half-hour longer than what would have been the perfect end point or criticize him for a one-sided whitewashing of history, virtually ignoring (with the exception of Gloria Reuben's character) the African-American side of this issue. Both of those are true, but what really bothered me was how he treated, or didn't treat, the assassination. If Spielberg didn't want to show it (supposedly because he thought it would be tasteless, which is a cop-out, but his call), that's fine. But you can't choose not to show it and still fully acknowledge it. If he was going to show it, then he should have. If not, then he shouldn't have. You can't have it both ways. Not with something like that. Instead he does this silly bait-and-switch that ends up drawing more attention to the assassination than if he'd actually reenacted it in all its horror. You could actually argue he fulfills his fear of it being tasteless just by pulling this unnecessary stunt.
Spielberg's one of only a few filmmakers today who can reasonably be considered a "brand." The accusation that at this point he's just cashing paychecks and trying to collect Oscars isn't entirely disproven with this effort, but the film is surprisingly restrained and refined, representing at least one of his purest, most honest outings in a while. Unfortunately those very same qualities also make it kind of a chore to sit through. Perhaps it's a little too restrained and in need of some of that magic Ben Affleck was able to create with Argo. While some criticized that for "Hollywoodizing" a historical event, there's no denying his approach worked, giving the material a much-needed emotional spin that captivated audiences. In contrast, Lincoln feels more like a homework assignment. One in which students would actually be more excited to read the book.