Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Expectations: Low. I expect it to be boring.
Contrary to what the title suggests, Lincoln isn’t a biopic. It’s the story of how Lincoln the politician, despite all the odds stacked against him, managed to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States. And that’s pretty much it. If you’re not into political maneuvering, specifically 150-year-old political maneuvering, do not watch this movie. It won’t do anything for you, because it’s not for you. This one’s strictly for the history buffs, the people who gleefully dig into historical texts and huge scholarly examinations of centuries-old presidential tenures. For them, I’m sure this is easily one of the best films of 2012. But for me, it was a slow, lengthy movie that had a climax without any excitement as the outcome is already well-known by any self-respecting American. Is there really anyone out there that white-knuckled it through the vote counting scene, as the filmmaking would suggest you’re supposed to do? I highly doubt it. Maybe kids, but I can’t imagine kids would even make it that far.
My favorite scene was the film’s first, an incredibly brutal, muddy Civil War battle. I know that’s cliché for the action movie lover to say, but it’s not an action scene. It’s impeccably well-filmed, and its careful use of slow motion brings the brutality of this long-dead, close quarters style of war to life; I felt transported back in time. The following scene shows Lincoln conversing with a couple of black soldiers after the battle, and here the illusion shatters. Two white soldiers walk up, and I swear on everything that is good in this world my first thought was, “I wonder where Bill & Ted here left their phone booth.” Then my girlfriend basically said the same thing, without any prompting or suggestions from me. These guys were awful, just awful, and in the shots of Lincoln talking to these guys you can also clearly see the rain shooting in opposite arcs from the sprinklers perched above the camera’s line of sight. These are small components of a short scene in a long movie, but they were merely the beginning of my issues with the film.
Spielberg still shoots on 35mm film, but he might as well give up the fight and go full digital if his films are going to look as fakely perfect as Lincoln does. Very few of the scenes even look like they were shot on film, instead the entire production has a strong digital sheen that made it hard for me to buy into anything as reality. As I talked about in my reviews for Brave and Oz: The Great and Powerful, live-action films are losing the qualities that make them unique. Compare something like Django Unchained to Lincoln. Both were shot on 35mm, but as Tarantino is all about classic films and achieving a film look, his film actually looks like it was shot on 35mm. According to this interview with Django‘s cinematographer Robert Richardson, the color grading was done photochemically like the old days as well. Lincoln is a completely different story. I know that most everyone has accepted digital grading (and the strange look it can give films) as the norm these days, but I simply cannot. It has its place, and it has enhanced numerous films in ways analog technologies could not, but for the most part it’s ugly and it looks ridiculously fake. Perhaps because this story wasn’t dripping in the modern Spielberg saccharine sentimentality, he had to “sweeten up” the visuals.
That all being said, Lincoln is something of a handsome production. It’s a Spielberg movie, after all, so a lot of the set design and costuming is very well done. The makeup on Daniel Day-Lewis is excellent, and most of the time he looks impressively close to Abraham Lincoln. I was saddened initially when Liam Neeson stepped out of the role, but after seeing the film I can’t imagine Neeson looking anywhere near as close to Lincoln as Daniel Day-Lewis does. I’m sure he would’ve looked great, but Day-Lewis has clearly defined himself as this era’s film Lincoln (just as Robert V. Barron was my generation’s perfect representation of the 16th president).
And speaking of Daniel Day-Lewis, he’s awesome. You already knew it going in, but he’s perfect as Lincoln. I could go on about him, but it would be superfluous. I will say that I much prefer his performances in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood to this one, but that’s not based on any tangible reasons other than I liked those movies much better. The characters he played in those films were both more interesting and dynamic, but you’re watching the wrong Lincoln movie if you expect Lincoln to be Bill the Butcher.
On the other hand, I felt that most of the other main, recognizable players were lacking. They felt like they were obviously acting in a movie instead of inhabiting a role. This gives the film a detached quality and it made it feel less than cohesive for me. While Daniel Day-Lewis is doing his best Lincoln, Sally Fields is delving deep into 1930s & ’40s melodrama, Tommy Lee Jones is doing Tommy Lee Jones, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is acting like it’s 2013 with an 1860s hairdo. I don’t quite know how to explain this adequately, but these supporting performances coupled with the over-the-top digital grading really took me out of the film and threw away any hope I might have had of getting sucked back in. I should note that the actors all perform what they’re doing very well, I just don’t think they were all on the same page. And really, that’s Spielberg’s fault, as it’s the director’s job to coax performances that work for the movie out of the actors. But everyone else seems to like this movie, so what do I know?
I’ll be honest, I only watched Lincoln because I used to like Spielberg immensely and I still feel some obligation to watch his new stuff. In my final moments, if I find myself surveying my time poorly spent watching movies, I imagine the last few Spielberg movies will rank fairly high on my regret list as they flash before my eyes (provided I can remember much about them at that indiscriminate point in the future). Lincoln clearly wasn’t my bag, but it might be yours. I honestly can’t call it a bad movie, as it was well-made, but it’s not one that I liked much. It does have moments of pure brilliance, though, here and there, and despite my overall lack of engagement I was never really bored by it. It’s a strange beast, for sure. Perhaps I’m just tired of Hollywood making film after film about white people of the past helping black people; isn’t it about time we get a few good films about some heroic and historic black people?