Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Julie White, James Spader, Sally Field, John Hawkes, and David Strathairn
One of the most anticipated movies of 2012 is Steven Spielberg’s follow-up to his twin efforts from 2011; “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn” and the Academy Award nominated “War Horse.” Both of these films could be seen as response films to Spielberg’s 2008 film “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Wherein as “Indy4,” received a mixed critical response and was trashed by general audiences and fans. To respond, “Tintin” was the purest of Spielberg’s action tendencies and “War Horse” was the purest of emotional sappy films Spielberg has made famous. But in “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg manages to find that balance between pandering to a general audience with emotional schlock and riveting “battle” sequences. And while it feels like a balancing act, it comes off a monstrously mediocre and well worn. For audiences everywhere, brace yourself; “Lincoln” can be a snooze at times.
The story behind “Lincoln” is really in the making of the film when Steven Spielberg decided to turn the best-selling non-fiction book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin into a feature film. Bringing on the talented Tony Kushner (“Munich,” “Angels In America”); Spielberg managed to find the drama in Congress by telling a story of President Lincoln giving up a piece of himself for the betterment of a torn country during the Civil War. The drama in “Lincoln” doesn’t come from epic battles in open fields with the North against the South. The drama comes from the divided Congress. Spielberg manages to make the uninteresting compelling and riveting. But the film suffers because ultimately this material is, at its core, very bland, mundane, stuffy, and stodgy.
The film follows the events after President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) delivers the Gettysburg Address and makes an effort to end the Civil War once and for all by introducing the 13th Amendment into Congress. The Bill essentially frees the slaves and makes all men equal in the eyes of the law. The country is deeply divided on the battlefield but also in its legislature and it’s difficult for President Lincoln to pass this Bill without giving in to some concessions. Against his own character, Lincoln plays dirty to get the votes he needs to pass this historic Bill.
President Lincoln is calculated in turning hearts and minds towards passing the 13th Amendment. First he wins over his cabinet, which is also deeply divided (by design), and then he tries to win over the House of Representatives and then eventually the Senate. Yes, this film is mostly about the checks and balances in US government. In many ways, the film serves as a history lesson AND a civics lesson on how the US government works. The only way to make any of this compelling is by the performances of the film’s all-star cast.
The centerpiece of the film is Daniel Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln. He is extraordinary! What makes the long debates bearable are the surprising amount of humor and comedy. “Lincoln” is funny! By humanizing the iconic American, the film and the character “Lincoln” shows an amazing amount of charm and wit. Often times, Lincoln would stop what he’s doing and tell a personal story that might lighten the mood in a hostel room. This device, not only benefits the characters that share the room but the audiences who are watching the film. Day-Lewis has a command of the screen like none other in the film. His quiet, soft-spoken nature can still feel chilling with just his on-screen presence. It’s almost amazing to think that same actor played the menacing and evil Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 film “There Will Be Blood” and the almost meager Abraham Lincoln. And of course, being surrounded by wonderfully deep-supporting characters played by an all-star cast can’t hurt either.
It seems like everyone in “Lincoln” can leave a strong impression on the viewer including Bruce McGill as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to Jackie Earle Haley as the Vice President of the Confederate States of America Alexander H. Stephens. One of the big stand outs of the piece is the trio of optimistic operatives William N. Bilboe, Colonel Robert Latham, and Richard Schell played comically by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson. Of course, Tommy Lee Jones as Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens has the biggest supporting role by pushing ahead the 13th Amendment. Jones plays up the comedy but it also seems infused with a bit of pathos or tragedy but then erupts into a quiet joy at the film’s climax, now mirrored by Day-Lewis’ quiet integrity.
What bogs down the film is length and at times, dullness. As a man Abraham Lincoln has to compromise with his eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to join the Union Army. Robert wants to join and his father doesn’t want him to. But ultimately he has to be a good father to his son and let his son join. Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) doesn’t understand the decision after the pair lost their youngest son a few years earlier. The film is not very dynamic when it comes to filmmaking and direction. This is very odd because it’s Steven Spielberg, the master of driving narratives by editing and camerawork. It’s almost devoid of anything cinematic, as most of it plays as if it were a theater piece instead of a film.
“Lincoln” may be a step up for Spielberg’s career in terms of balance but it does seem like the director is on a downswing. There used to be an excitement to Spielberg’s work but now he seems content by throwing his actors the keys to the car and letting them drive the narrative. In the end, “Lincoln” is a story of a man who had to compromise with his family, character, and politics to secure the future of his country. It feels like Steven Spielberg is currently making the same compromise with his audience and films to be cautious and to always play it safe.