Lincoln sees Spielberg and Day Lewis explore Honest Abe’s finest -and final – hours

It would appear the general scholarly consensus is that “Lincoln” is a reasonably accurate retelling of the final four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life and in particular his efforts to get the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives, which is a relief after 2012’s ludicrous vampire-slaying take on the early life of the 16th President of the United States Of America.

As has already been recognised by an Oscar, Daniel Day-Lewis is flawless as Abraham Lincoln, a performance so rich in conviction and subtlety that he completely convinces as a quiet, thoughtful and principled man aware of both the immense power he wields and the responsibilities he bears.

Despite his mesmeric performance, the film suffers from a slow, hesitant start and even though Spielberg starts proceedings by briefly throwing in one of his now almost obligatory chaotic battle scenes, the whole affair feels quite sterile and distant. At any moment you half expect the smooth rich tones of, say, a Morgan Freeman voice-over to begin and a dry but handsomely staged history documentary unfold before you.

The film really sparks into life once the President’s ambitions and motives are made clear and it becomes a race for numbers to get the amendment through congress, bringing some of the wonderful supporting cast into play. Nobody, however, injects more life into this film than Tommy Lee Jones, who comes damn close to stealing the picture right out from under Day-Lewis as the morose and cantankerous Republic Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a man with his own, more personal motive for helping the President. David Strathairn also impresses as Lincoln’s confidante and seemingly closest ally Secretary of State William H Seward while James Spader adds some much-needed levity to the proceedings as the roguish Republican lobbyist William Bilbo.

With the dependable but unspectacular Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and an oddly disengaged turn by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, the real glimpses of the family man behind the presidential façade are provided by the interaction between Lincoln and his younger son Tad, played charmingly by Gulliver McGrath.

The rest of the cast reads like a who’s who of American character actors who embrace their characters’ virtues and follies superbly and it’s a credit to all involved that the final vote on the amendment carries with it a genuine sense of suspense and tension despite the historically famous outcome.

Although the film reaches a natural, satisfying and triumphant climax following the passing of the amendment, the film is unable to resist the temptation to linger on for the most famous moment of Lincoln’s life: its end. This results in a drawn-out, largely unnecessary coda that skips in fits and starts over the three months between the amendments passing and that fateful trip to Ford’s Theatre. The moment arrives and is done with a clever bait-and-switch approach that shows us nothing of John Wilkes-Booth or his actions but instead leaves it to Gulliver McGrath’s Tad Lincoln to embody the tragedy and heartbreak of an entire nation. The fact that he does so magnificently almost make the gratuitous last half hour of this two and a half-hour film worthwhile. Almost.

“Lincoln” succeeds through the power of its amazing cast, propelled by the committed performances of the lead players and supported by lavish attention to period detail. The missing element for me is Spielberg. The film is handsome and well-made but it feels like Spielberg’s most anonymous picture to date. There is precious little sign of him in the fabric of the film and almost nothing of his usual visual flair. If this were directed by almost anybody else, I’m sure I would have scored it higher, but I expect more from Spielberg. Maybe that’s unfair, but it’s a reflection of his past body of work that a film so exceptionally well crafted as “Lincoln” still feels a little bit of a letdown.

Lincoln review
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5 Comments

  1. ReasonableCritic September 18, 2013

    I thought that Lincoln was a masterpiece, but it’s very, very different from anything else that Steve has ever directed. One has to resist the temptation to compare this to his older work, because in maturing, he has almost evolved beyond recognition. In a way it’s a bitter pill; I went and saw Jurassic Park in 3D, and that film is as good as it ever was; it pretty much could have been made this year. But the days of dinosaurs are over. If Lincoln feels stagey, it’s because it’s the first Speilberg costume drama, and he’s never really explored this territory before.

    • quaiacom September 18, 2013

      I don’t disagree it’s a masterpiece, but it’s Daniel Day Lewis’ (and Tommy Lee Jones’) masterpiece, not Spielberg’s – at least not in an active way. It’s a gripping and compelling piece of cinema but I just don’t feel the Spielberg here. By any other director, this would have been a 9, but I hold him to a higher standard. I suggested in my review of Jurassic Park that it was making “Schindler’s List” that forever changed him as a film maker, robbing him of an innocence and wonder he has never recaptured.

      He has been in similar territory before – with the underrated “Amistad”, so I’m not going to cut him any slack on the costume drama front. It has seemed to me in his recent work Spielberg’s seemed a little disengaged from his films and I wonder if his long held and deep admiration for Abraham Lincoln (both as a person and a historical figure) led him to deliberately step back and allow Honest Abe to take centre stage unfiltered.

  2. ReasonableCritic September 18, 2013

    His career can certainly be divided into pre-Schindler and post-Scindler. He made some “serous” films (Color Purple, Empire of the Sun) before, and some “fun” films (The Lost World, Minority Report) after, but you’re right, the key is the wide-eyed sense of wonder that has all but disappeared. But is that a bad thing? In a way I’m sad that he has changed, but as far as I am concerned films like AI and Munich are masterpieces, and a younger Speilberg would have been incapable of even approaching them. AI is a bleak, bleak film with a REALLY dark ending that went over most people’s heads because they could not fathom that Speilberg would end a film that way.
    I thought that Lincoln was a much better film than Amistad, but Amistad feels more like a Speilberg movie. I have actually been considering your words, and you’re absolutely right: Lincoln is the first Speilberg film without that ephemeral factor that can only be described as magic.

    • quaiacom September 18, 2013

      However his style is evolving, he’s still a fascinating and talented director, capable of both whimsical flights of fancy and profound, serious work. I wonder what he’s working on now? Trawling the internet, all you find is projects he was attached to but has then abandoned or handed off to other people.

      • ReasonableCritic September 18, 2013

        If that means he’s really carefully considering his next projct, it’s a good thing. At this point in his career he can afford to be choosey. I’m glad he’s off Robopocalypse, it sounded derivative (as well as a combinattion of AI and Jurrasic Park). I was excited about American Sniper, but apparently that was not to be. And I still have no idea what Interstellar was, or is going to be now that Nolan is directing. The most interesting Spelberg rumor I ‘ve heard is Gods and Kings, a film about Moses, but I don’t know if he’s still considering it.

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