December 23, 2012


Lincoln isn't a bad movie, but it's hardly the masterpiece we've been waiting for (or not waiting for), for the better part of a decade. 

Spielberg's latest important film, once again showing that his better work was done on the unimportant movies like E.T. I suspect people with clout in the movie industry will whip themselves into a frenzy of self-satisfaction at their moral enlightenment for liking Lincoln and bestow upon it many awards. But the movie is turgid and talky, and as clever as some of the writing is (it was scripted by Tony Kushner, who adapted an excerpt of Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln), the language, and ultimately the movie itself, seems to be lost in its own ramblings.

The worst thing about Lincoln being ultimately dissatisfying is that people will overpraise the good things in it, and laud it all the more for its noble intentions, and the admittedly astonishing performance of Daniel Day-Lewis. His voice sounds a little like Ronald Reagan's, but more high-pitched. The look is as close to perfection as we're likely to get. And there isn't a better casting choice I can think of. Certainly Day-Lewis adds much to what is good about Lincoln.

Spielberg goes for the cerebral pleasure of a courtroom drama, full of candid, forceful discussions about law and morality in dimly lit rooms, then juxtaposed with scenes of political figures pontificating about the pros and cons of black people being considered human. And it's perhaps deliciously amusing to think of Lincoln strong-arming the House members into voting for the 13th Amendment. But the movie lacks the power I wanted it to have. The big Congressional vote scene at the end of the movie is fairly well-done: a moderately exciting finale to a movie that lumbers through its material, taking too much pleasure in its own mediocrity. And the assassination is tastefully handled, not mired in sentiment. But it's also not completely detached.

Sally Field, who reportedly had to convince Spielberg to cast her as Mrs. Lincoln, is right for the role, but it's a thankless role. She's playing a depressed woman who had more than her fair share of demons (including the loss of one son at this point in the story; her youngest, Tad, later died in 1871 at age 18). Mary, often maligned as crazy, and perpetually about to be "dragged off screaming to the snake pit" (to quote Bette Davis), comes off as the grating housewife. She utters a sadly prescient line near the end of the film, that she'll be remembered for her madness and for being a source of grief and pain for the President. She's best when she's allowed to match wits with some of the fatuous politicians who have stood in her husband's way.  Field's got the look down too, and her performance adheres itself to the vague impressions most of us have of Mrs. Lincoln.

There are a few colorful performances that add some spark, including Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Thadeus Stevens, who's been working for thirty years to end slavery. Hal Holbrook, the lovable bullfrog, plays Francis Preston Blair, an aging Republican who also felt that slavery needed to die. David Strathairn plays Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Seward. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Robert Lincoln, the eldest Lincoln son, who's determined to fight for the Union despite the wishes of his parents, afraid they'll have to bury another son. With James Spader, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Lee Pace, Gloria Reuben, Bill Raymond, David Costabile, Julie White, Joseph Cross, Jared Harris (as General Grant), Peter McRobbie, Gulliver McGrath (as Tad Lincoln), and Boris McGiver.

The biggest problem with movies like Lincoln is that we tell ourselves they are important so therefore they must be good movies. I suppose it's possible that someone sat through this movie completely enthralled in the dialogue (I've enjoyed many a chatty movie before), but for me it was only half as good as I was hoping it to be.

(This review was written while listening exclusively to music by The Civil Wars.)

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