Steven Spielberg is one of the most, if not the most, well known director working today, having become immortalized thanks to his multitude of fantastic films, including Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Schindler’s List. However, in the past few years, Spielberg has hit somewhat of a rough patch in his career. First there was the disappointment that was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, then the lifeless and antiquated Adventures of Tintin, and finally last year’s schmaltzy Oscar bait, War Horse. Spielberg hopes to buck this trend with this years Lincoln, a portrait of the most important month in Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, but unfortunately he repeats many of the same mistakes that were all too prevalent in last year’s War Horse. Lincoln is a superficial look into our greatest president’s life that is too self-indulgent and emotionally manipulative for its own good, and its only saving grace is some great performances.
Lincoln follows our 16th President during the final months of his robust reign as Commander in Chief, tracking his attempts to end the Civil War and free the slaves through the passing of the 13th Amendment. The movie focuses on one month of Lincoln’s life as he uses all of his power to insure that the Amendment passes through the House of Representatives, while also trying to negotiate peace terms with the Confederacy.
First things first, you cannot mention Lincoln without immediately talking about Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis is famous for being as much a method actor as you possibly can be, spending months researching and developing his characters, and once filming starts he stays in character until the very last shot. While some may argue that this is extremely mentally unhealthy, no one can argue with the results it achieves. Day-Lewis has deservedly won two Oscars, and he very well might win a third for his depiction of Lincoln. While the movie may have problems, there’s no arguing that Day-Lewis is brilliant in the role. He plays Lincoln with a quite conviction, he’s a man willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goals, but he’s also weary from years of war and turmoil, and Day-Lewis manages to capture all these emotions brilliantly. You can see how tired and frustrated he is simply by looking into his eyes.
Unfortunately, his performance can’t save a poorly written character. For the majority of the film, Lincoln speaks in noting but metaphors and preachy rants. Almost every piece of his dialogue is some sort of self-indulgent speech about the necessity of the country’s actions and the 13th Amendment, and while Day-Lewis delivers the speeches amazingly, with burning passion and self-determination, both Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner never make Lincoln relatable or even believable. They never treat Lincoln like an actual human being, and therefore the film feels like nothing more than a hero-worship. Day-Lewis may do his best to sell what he’s been given, but even an actor of his caliber can’t elevate schmaltzy material like this.
No matter how good the performances are (the supporting cast, which includes Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is just as powerfully committed to their roles as Day-Lewis), there is no way to salvage this film from Spielberg’s emotionally manipulative direction and Kushner’s overlong and boring script. Spielberg was once famous for being able to effectively capture true human emotion on film. His movies like E.T. and Schindler’s List are perfect examples of his ability to meld fantastic acting with effective cinematography and an amazing score to successfully initiate emotional reactions from his audience. Unfortunately, Lincoln feels like a knock-off of his own style. He hits all of the same beats – Day-Lewis is amazing, the cinematography is fantastic, and John Williams’ score is beautiful – but yet it all feels completely artificial. Rather than try and build an emotional connection with the audience and earn emotional reactions, he uses sweeping camera movements and John Williams’ music as cues to the audience for when to feel happy or when to feel sad. It’s as if he is running through the motions with little to no passion for the project. The movie is basically a checklist of Spielberg’s tendencies but in the worst way possible. It’s extremely frustrating because everybody knows Spielberg is capable of so much more and so much better.
What’s even more frustrating though is the script and how exhaustedly boring and devoid of stakes the entire story is. First off, be prepared before entering this movie to watch two and a half hours of great actors sitting around in lush costumes discussing politics. While there are some individually great scenes, there are so many redundant and repetitive dialogue exchanges that I was checking the time almost every twenty minutes. What’s even worse is the fact that we are watching old men argue about politics and subjects that the audience has no stake in, due to the fact that the film only focuses on the old men arguing about politics. The film would have been significantly better had they once or twice showed us what everyone was so riled up about. The Civil War and slavery are both very dramatic material, and had they replaced some of the political arguments with scenes possibly depicting the hardships of slavery or the war, all the arguments would have had a sense of urgency and necessity. Instead, the movie settles to be a stuffy period piece about rich white old men arguing about politics of the time (which is relevant to today, no doubt, but not really entertaining and gripping).
It’s unfortunate that Lincoln turned out this way because it really did have so much potential – it teamed up one of the best directors of all time with a cast full of amazing and brilliant actors, while the story focused on one of the greatest presidents of our country and his struggles to abolish slavery. Months ago, I would have said this film could have been something truly special and a revitalization of Spielberg’s talent and career, but instead, it is a showy, self-indulgent piece of Oscar bait that is instantly forgettable.
Review by James Hausman