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.

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