The Good: Amazing cast, Decent concept
The Bad: Weird characters, Very slow, Dull direction
The Basics: Vastly overrated, Lincoln is little more than a political process story with one of the weirdest characters in recent memory.
When it comes to Oscar Pandering Season, there are several films that have counted on a “shock and awe” approach to getting nominated. I was actually quite thrilled that last year, Argo (reviewed here!) won the Best Picture. I was happy because, for the first time in quite some time, the winner was not a December release that was counting on the fervor of award season to get nominated. It was a smart, well-developed film with all the aspects that make for a great film worthy of the Best Picture honor. There were a number of films last year that I did not manage to see prior to the award ceremony and the one I wanted to see most was Lincoln .
I’m over that now. Having sat through Lincoln, I was surprised by how very little I enjoyed it. Lincoln is a great example of a film with an amazing cast with a story and characters that does little to allow them to actually rise to the heights of their talents. But more importantly, Lincoln does what something like The West Wing (reviewed here!) was often too smart to avoid doing; it shows the full intricacies of a process story. Behind the scenes of politics is often disappointing, but (as Lincoln proves adequately) it is even more often boring. Not so much about Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln is about the harrowing process of getting the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution (abolition of slavery) passed. It’s a lot of wheeling and dealing and it is not at all exciting or even particularly engaging.
Two months after Abraham Lincoln’s re-election to the Presidency of the United States of America, the American Civil War is stretching into its fourth bloody year. After visiting the Front, Lincoln returns to Washington, determined to get the House Of Representatives to pass his Amendment to the Constitution that would Constitutionally abolish slavery and create equal rights under the law. Lincoln explains to his cabinet that the Amendment is necessary to both ending the Civil War and avoiding the legal quagmires that the Emancipation Proclamation created.
As Lincoln meets with his visiting son, the President’s lackeys Bilbo and Latham, try to sway the few Democrats they need to pass the Amendment through patronage and bribes. With envoys of the Confederacy approaching to talk peace, Lincoln and the chief advocate for equality in the House, Thaddeus Stevens, work desperately to pass the Amendment . . . regardless of the consequences.
The story is far less a character study, which is what makes Lincoln so pedantic. Instead, it is a blend of Abraham Lincoln characterized as a meandering weirdo, unable to keep real focus or make a point concisely, and long stretches of political process. The personal aspects of Lincoln are most frequently part of subplots illustrating Lincoln’s relationships with his son Robert – who stands up for himself to enlist – and Mary Todd (who spends time acting appropriately unbalanced). Neither of those subplots are particularly compelling.
More than the writing, I blame this on the direction. Given how the movie poster for Lincoln is a tight shot of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, close and craggy-faced, it is astonishing how little Spielberg actually goes in for the close shot. Yelling, in a quiet conversation with Elizabeth Keckley, and seldom else does Spielberg go in for the close shot to actually allow Day-Lewis’s performance occupy the screen. As a result, the viewer is left disconnected from Abraham Lincoln and Daniel Day-Lewis’s odd portrayal of him.
As a result, it is Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens who actually steals Lincoln (as much as such a theft is possible). Stevens is principled and smart and he represents a focused strategist in the fight to pass the Amendment. Tommy Lee Jones plays Stevens as passionate and aged beyond his years, making for a compelling performance. And Steven Spielberg actually puts the camera close on him to make him more than just a setpiece in a large room.
Lincoln is a lot of talking and I can enjoy a good movie that is filled with people talking. But Lincoln is seldom interesting characters saying any compelling, intrinsically human, truth. Instead, far more often, it is a bunch of old white men bitching about the process to pass a vote. For this particular story, there need not be such a quality cast; the impressive cast here cannot rise to the occasion to make it engaging.
For other historical dramas, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
All The President’s Men
For other movie reviews, please visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2013 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
| | |