Movie Review: “Lincoln” (Steven Spielberg, USA 2012)

Abraham Lincoln has been a subject of extraordinary interest lately, for obvious political reasons. Seth Grahame-Smith’s novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln appeared within the last decade, and the films Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (Richard Schenkman, USA 2012), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Timur Bekmambetov, USA 2012) and Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA 2012) all came out in 2012. Lincoln was the big deal of the lot. It was the serious costume drama in opposition to the big-budget joke of Vampire Hunter and the small-budget copycat joke of Zombies. It was the film starring “serious actors” Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field as the Lincolns, as opposed to Benjamin Walker and Mary Elizabeth Winstead or Bill Oberst Jr. and Debra Crittenden. It even had a star director in Steven Spielberg instead of Richard Schenkman or Timur Bekmambetov.

However, there were always reasons to worry about Lincoln. First, it was clear Oscar bait. Two-time Oscar winner Steven Spielberg had directed Best Picture nominees twice in the last seven years while two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis had been nominated for Best Actor for half of the films he had made in the previous decade. Screenwriter Tony Kushner was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for his only screenplay work before. That’s a recipe for guaranteed award consideration, but not for interesting filmmaking. Second, Spielberg had not made a truly worthwhile film in over three decades. Third, Lincoln is one of the most mythologized figures in American history, one whose flaws have disappeared in history. Hagiographies make for dull work, and it’s difficult to imagine a biography of Lincoln in the United States that does not fall into hagiography. Finally, the politically-outspoken Spielberg seemed to be making the film about a particular political battle with an eye toward making a point in favor of President Obama. Political filmmaking can still be interesting, but it often becomes a muddled mess that’s too busy praising or attacking its primary target to become anything cohesive, and Spielberg’s lack of interesting work in recent years suggested that he was not likely to avoid that trap.

Unfortunately, the warning signs ended up being accurate. Spielberg’s film is a political animal intended to make the point that moderation is sometimes required to achieve even extreme goals, but it loses its focus often and muddles its own point. Spielberg and Kushner, befitting the former’s obsession with making films about the value of family, could not resist the temptation to insert family drama surrounding the Lincolns’ oldest son that has nothing whatsoever to do with the film’s point. It also continues past the passage of the 13th Amendment to suggest that the greatest champion of racial equality (in the film’s world) was acting out of self-interest because of his own interracial romance with his housekeeper and show Lincoln’s assassination, though in typical Spielberg style the assassination itself is not present but instead the President’s young son’s reaction to it. Fully 1/2 of the film is disconnected from its point, but there is no other point that ties together a larger segment of the film. It’s really just that unfocused. The sense of a lack of focus is even increased by the film’s lack of flow–it feels like a series of scenes rather than a cohesive unit.

Visually, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski continue to show the same lack of imagination they have shown together since they began working together with Schindler’s List (USA 1993). As are all big-budget “serious” movies these days, the film is very dark, filled with low-key lighting and little bright color. Occasional scenes emphasize the  journey out of the dark, hate-filled past of race relations with darkened rooms that include bright open windows with white curtains, an obvious but still fairly effective technique that simply shows up too rarely. It’s a film that you could listen to without watching and lose little.

The acting is quite good, though frankly no one has a part that requires much. The perfect man that is President Lincoln requires nothing other than a good-humored grin and a high-pitched voice with a southern accent from Daniel Day-Lewis. He does what is required of him, and as usual mumbles through enough of his lines that he becomes difficult to understand. However, in a rare show of restraint, he doesn’t take his character over the top. That’s a decent performance, if one that any number of actors could give. James Spader gives an enjoyable performance as uncouth but excellent lobbyist that’s just reminiscent enough of Alan Shore that it’s difficult to ignore the similarity. David Strathairn, as usual, is excellent in a role that requires little. However, Sally Field stood out in a negative way. Her over-the-top caterwauling was frankly annoying–it was as if she decided to replace all of Daniel Day-Lewis’s bad habits with her own version of them, and her completely flat affect when not caterwauling turned Mary Todd Lincoln into a self-parody of insanity that could not be believed. It’s a shame, because hers is the only really weak performance, but it was terrible.

John Williams, another long-time Spielberg film-mate, also showed rare restraint, though perhaps his was not such a good idea. Much of the film lacked any score at all, and the dramatic moments that Williams would often emphasize with a powerful fanfare were instead met with simple, quiet lines that could just as easily have been gone. His score never gets in the way, but it also never works.

All told, Lincoln is a poor film. It’s a well-acted but poorly-thought-out exercise in hagiography that has no purpose and nothing of artistic interest. It’s everything that I was afraid it might be.