Film Review: Lincoln

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Slave Labour of Love

What a handsome, important film Steven Spielberg has made; an actor’s showcase that’s pregnant with insight and detail. That, one imagines, is the review the director’s imagination conjured as he put the stoic and once again, utterly transformed Daniel Day-Lewis through his paces, filming this long gestating biopic of unlucky theatregoer, Abraham Lincoln.

They’d be nothing disingenuous about that one line review and yet there’s a void at the heart of this worthy Oscar bait; an absence of moxie, a lack of that distinctly cinematic concision that can act like a Calvary charge, powering a story forward. It’s as though Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner forgot they were making a movie and became consumed by the idea of producing an historical document. Paring back the dialogue, substituting oratory for visual metaphor, talk for grandiose setpieces, was thought to be insufficiently reverential; an insult to a politician whose infamy is built on words and backroom machinations rather than moments that are fundamentally cinematic.

No one’s going to lambast Spielberg for making a thoughtful and carefully researched film, nor for being content to be a deliberating witness to history rather than an active participant in the tale, but watching Lincoln’s succession of conversations, each perfectly weighted for information and pathos, makes you yearn for a different medium – one better suited to the intimacy of each encounter, the density of such dialogue and the narrow focus on the legislative process that ended in the abolition of US slavery: Lincoln, you feel, would have made a wonderful piece of television.

One can argue that the passing of the 13th amendment to the US constitution and victory in the civil war were the crowning achievements of Lincoln’s presidency; that everything built to those milestones, so why waste time trying to encompass the scope of an entire life, a story that would, by necessity, be compromised by ellipsis, by omission, as movie biopics inevitably must be? Perhaps because a grand, sweeping biopic is a distinctly cinematic enterprise: life, as Hitchcock said, with the dull bits cut out.

The film as made is a story worth telling; Spielberg doesn’t patronise his audience by unpacking the language or truncating the politics; but it’s laid out with, what for this director, is a distinct lack of chutzpah. One never feels alive or inspired watching this history, merely intrigued, as if watching a film made for a museum exhibit: well-made to be sure but a shoe-in for best picture? Not in this world.

None of which should detract from the quality of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in the title role. It is, in many ways, the personification of the movie itself: measured, understated, occasionally animated and often highly convincing. It’s the turn of a committed and versatile character actor and inevitably the supporting cast seem somewhat ordinary by comparison. An exception might be Sally Field, but even there, one’s left with the sense of an actor giving a good performance while Day-Lewis lives and breathes as the eponymous president. Well, until he doesn’t.

Directed by: Steven Spielberg

Country: US

Year: 2012

Running Time: 150 mins

Certificate: 12A for Tommy Lee Jones and scenes inserted for the consideration of Academy voters.

4 Responses

  1. Mike says:

    I agree. I think that DDL is likely to get an oscar for his performance (though it isn’t his finest work) and perhaps Speiberg may get one for best Director. Having no prior knowledge of American politics, I was still able to keep up amongst the capitol hill jargon. But for me, Lincoln falls short of feeling like a ‘complete’ movie. There’s no real punch – no twist or kick to keep you going. Compare this to something like ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘Schindlers List’ or even ‘Jurassic Park’ and you will realise that this isn’t a movie masterpiece, more like a really good history lesson.

  2. molajen says:

    You said it very well. Not being familiar with all of the American jargon didn’t help, but the acting seemed odd, almost like glimpsing the scene being played out as it happened in history. It just wasn’t the soul jerker I expected from a movie about such an historical event.

  3. Jess says:

    I was contemplating writing a review for ‘Lincoln’ when I found yours, and now there is no need for me to write my own thoughts. You have perfectly expressed everything I thought about this film; meticulous, wonderfully acted, fairly historically sound- but flat, and far better suited to a TV medium than the big screen. Thank you for so cogently expressing a balanced review of this (rather mammoth) film!

  4. Jean says:

    I’ll take a movie like this any day. It’s a movie that completely drew me into a fully credible social, political and personal reality. Calling it mere history, flat, lacking chutzpah seems to me to be asking for something artificially cinematic. Leave the bombast to others and give me this style of movie please.