Lincoln – Steven Spielberg – 2012

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Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is rarely moving and I would categorize it as one of the most understated and restrained works of his career. He does not go for dazzle or spectacle here, despite two scenes of carnage, for the most part he sticks to the academic. The film is mostly about the passage of the 13th amendment and how Lincoln delayed the end of the Civil War so that he could end slavery.

So how is it?

Most of the time it was very dry. The sets looked musty and dark and the actors were often clouded in shadow. I understand the slavishness to the available light at the time, but sometimes the picture was dull to view. The images aren’t terribly dynamic.

The opening scene, where the soldiers repeat back the Gettysburg address was silly and absurd. Dane Dehaan is cool, but this bit had me rolling my eyes right away.

Daniel Day Lewis is fine and good as Lincoln, and gives him a respected air of authoritarian paternity. However, by the pictures end, Lincoln was as much an enigma to me as he was before I saw the film. Spielberg never gets us very close to the man, and perhaps that is why he was such a successful diplomat, because no one could ever guess his heart.

Sally Field is also only fine and good. The way the film deals with her madness is actually quite perfect and were Field not acting so sane, I might have really enjoyed this aspect of the film, but her performance might be called subtle, but I wish they had taken her just a bit more to the extreme.

JGL as the junior Lincoln is forgettable as is the father’s relationship with his youngest son. These scenes are in the story to humanize the president, but one gets the impression that Lincoln had very little time for his sons and they were not a priority, at least during this session of congress. I did really like the scene where JGL sees all the severed limbs dumped in a pit though.

The supporting cast of the film is fun and funny in a 10th grade history class sort of way. David Strathairn and James Spader had me chuckling from time to time, but this is really Tommy Lee Jones film. His Thaddeus Stevens is a remarkable character and Jones’ granite features perfectly embody Stevens’ radical and gruff demeanor. This character is funny in nearly every scene of the picture and when you give the best performance in a film starring Daniel Day Lewis that’s really saying something.

The dialogue is beautiful if very dry and the atmosphere is quite transporting, but Lincoln never quite moved me. I was waiting for a moment of heroism or some type of narrative catharsis, but the point of the film is that democracy is a slow, backhanded process that can sometimes yield positive results. But in order to really feel that, you have to look at all the backroom handshaking and blackmailing and pleading that it feels like a miracle that it works at all.

The film goes on about twenty minutes too long. We could have ended there with Stevens in bed, but oh no, we have to go all the way to Lincoln’s death, and even then it is an absolute cop out to not stage that scene given the opportunity to put us there in the theater. Like I said, I’d have been satisfied with an ending earlier, but if you are going to go there at least do it with some respect. That could have been a terrifying, tragic, heart-breaking moment, but nope, it’s glossed over with a crap scene, and one shot of the man on a bloody pillow.

If this film were about lionizing Lincoln or the democratic process, I’d say it mostly succeeds. Lincoln is destined to be shown in government classes across the country. I’m just not sure it’s engaging enough to keep a teenager from falling asleep at his desk.

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