REVIEW: Lincoln

1 12 2012

I am by no means saying that “Lincoln” is not a smart movie.  I think the writing is very clever, the angle is interesting, and the words take the feel of political poetry.  And Daniel Day-Lewis gives a very meticulous and impressively restrained performance as the iconic 16th President.

But these two things do not necessarily a great movie make.  Director Steven Spielberg ultimately did not make a compelling argument as to why “Lincoln” is cinematic, and that is by far the most crucial component of a film’s success.  We don’t experience film on a page; we watch it on a screen.  And though I often sat wondering how much I would love to pore over Tony Kushner’s script, I never felt like I needed to see it on screen.  (Perhaps it would have been better served as a closet script, one meant to be read, not filmed.)

The history lesson is interesting in that it features a tight, narrow focus rather than the broad canvases in some of Spielberg’s earlier historical films such as “Schindler’s List” or “Amistad.”  Kushner’s grueling, often tedious procedural and insistance on parading new characters onto screen in rapid fire succession makes “Lincoln” feel more like an “Amistad,” meant to go straight into the DVD player in high school American history courses.  If it weren’t for the cavalcade of notable Oscar-recognized talent, it would feel no different than those dramatized History Channel specials that teachers show to give their students a break.

I have no problem with the Spielberg pendulum shifting towards education rather than entertainment and showmanship.  However, if such a changing dynamic is to work, Spielberg needed to shift his approach.  In “Lincoln,” he largely doesn’t.  In the first two hours of the film, we are bombarded with facts, details, and events.

Then, as the film comes to a close, the movie slows down and begins to amble.  We get generous close-ups of the people whose tireless efforts we have been following, as if Spielberg is telling us, “Here, feel for them … now!”  Perhaps after spending a semester watching all his films, I am hyperaware of his trademark shot and can fairly easily resist the pull.  But I wasn’t actively resisting or anything, they just didn’t work here.  The technique would have been great if “Lincoln” were more in the mold of “Schindler’s List” or “Saving Private Ryan,” histories built around deep emotions.  He can’t simply pull the technique out to achieve a similar effect for an entirely different film.

Lincoln

Once the process wraps up, it is revealed that Kushner and Spielberg are really more interested in hagiography than biography with “Lincoln.”  While it delves deeper than just mere Honest Abe iconography, their film is not one that attempts to tell his story.  In fact, Lincoln is almost entirely separate from the dirty work of getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed.

Lincoln to them is the man behind the scenes pulling the strings, a towering figure of progressivism in the faced of a divided country and a gridlocked legislature.  I certainly don’t mind the fairly obvious attempts to parallel the current state of American politics, but the allegory feels so obvious that it detracts from the significance of the history they are portraying.  Whether it is meant to reflect President Obama in his struggles to get his healthcare legislation passed or inspire and encourage him as well as other forward-minded politicians, the now is inseparable from the then.

In case you have any doubts about whether or not this is a movie about Barack Obama, pay close attention to how they crafted Abraham Lincoln to be a character defined more by symbolism than concrete, definitive actions.  Just look at the closing frame of the film.  Lincoln, delivering a speech to a diverse crowd, stretches his arms out wide as if he were Jesus hanging on the cross.

That pose is just the beginning.  Kushner’s Lincoln talks in parables and vague stories.  He is strong and silent, only erupting in anger when it is righteous.  He does cryptic things for reasons only he knows and won’t articulate to others.  He shuts himself off in moments of intensity.  He makes sacrifices for people that his opponents consider unworthy.  And ultimately, in spite of his nobility, his enemies take his life.  Perhaps rather than criticize, I ought to applaud Spielberg and Kushner for concocting the slyest spinning of Obama – I mean, Lincoln – into the Messiah yet.

Regardless of aesthetic assessment  I think it’s obvious that Spielberg and Kushner’s “Lincoln” is a film clearly produced by and for the Obama era of America.  What remains to be seen is whether their focus is too narrowed and their feet are too planted in the now.  If so, their Lincoln may not be one for future eras.  B- / 

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2 responses

3 12 2012
mike akel

Couldn’t agree more Marshall with your review. I didn’t ‘feel’ for Lincoln. I was more wrapped up in ‘wow, look at DD Lewis and S Field ACT!’ Often times with Kushner and Sorkin their work on screen feels ‘written.’ publish the screenplay if you want me to faun over your self absorbed words. plus, it just feels like the slavery story has been done to death. the movie was flat at best. it is possible that my disgust for the present day political ‘diversity agendas’ tainted my viewing. keep it up marshall!

4 12 2012
Marshall

I think a good template for success would have been “Munich,” and that’s what I came into “Lincoln” hoping it would be. I certainly don’t mind if movies have political agendas, but you do have to be incredibly careful when it’s a history. That history has its own issues and problems without a screenwriter trying to thrust today onto it!

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