A Little Less Conversation
Any self respecting history aficionado knows that watching past events through the eyes of Steven Spielberg is akin to looking at a great painting that’s been hung slightly off centre. Everything appears to be correct, but there is just one or two things that don’t seem quite right. His latest film Lincoln, a dusty diet-biopic of the 16th President of the USA, is no different. Aiming to capture the tumultuous days of Honest Abe’s second term in office, it charters the efforts and events that lead to the end of the American Civil War and the abolition of Slavery.
I refer to Lincoln as a diet-biopic because this film isn’t so much the story of the President’s life as it is a brief snapshot of his later political career. We don’t see him from boy to man, nor do we see the early stages of his rise through American politics. Instead, the film is only concerned with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment (so much so that naming the entire film after the Amendment would have been far more fitting than giving it Lincoln’s name.) This tactic is a real shame because it means Spielberg only focuses on the ‘myth’ of Abraham Lincoln (played here by Daniel Day Lewis), rather than examining the man behind it. “No one is loved as much as you by the people,” gushes Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) near the beginning of the film and it’s clear, from that moment, this sentiment is Spielberg’s vision entirely; his biopic plays out more like an adult version of those elementary school history ‘plays’ children are forced to put on for their parents.
This sickly sweet approach is only fuelled by John Williams‘ over sentimental score. The lone bugle, no doubt borrowed from War Horse, sounds on more than one occasion, usually accompanying scenes of Lincoln’s strong features being suddenly illuminated by moonlight, or cueing the audience that this is a Great Moment In History. The entire arrangement feels twee and very patronising. If you hated what the composer did with War Horse (and I didn’t) then wait until you get an earful of this. A dropped stitch in the master’s tapestry of genius.
Lincoln‘s largest problem is Tony Kushner‘s stuffy screenplay, which creaks and groans audibly underneath the great weight of history. His writing reduces almost everyone involved to sub Oscar Wilde characters, seemingly speaking only in soundbites and always ready to spout mock-philosophical hokum. Lincoln himself cannot go more than a sentence without launching into a long winded anecdote or using Gandhi-like metaphors, and Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) won’t open his mouth unless it is to spit out his latest acerbic witticism. While none of this rings true to life, what is worse is that no one featured in the film, except for one character, tires of this – even if such meandering tales are delivered at the very summit of wartime urgency. Instead, while a battle rages offscreen, we have to watch everyone onscreen either slap their knees in belly shaking merriment, or look upon their President with silent wonderment; mouths always agape, eyes always frosted. It’s unbearable.
Kushner and Spielberg are also guilty of assuming far too much prior knowledge on the audience’s behalf, meaning all of us who don’t have a Master’s degree in the History of American Politics are left adrift throughout most of its more dialogue heavy sequences (and make no bones: this is a 150 minute ‘talkie’.) While a keen interest in the subject matter should mean you get more out of films like Lincoln, this type of movie cannot be made for history enthusiasts alone – it has to stand up as a film in its own right too, and Lincoln really does not tick that box.
About eight conversations in I began to wonder if this impenetrability was installed on purpose – perhaps there was some biting, satirical commentary to be found in boiling such weighty issues down to the squabbling of entitled white men. But, alas, no; it becomes quickly apparent that this irony has flown over Spielberg’s head, and his film is every bit as in awe of Lincoln and his merry men as its characters appear to be.
The obsession with the President’s politics, rather than the man himself, means that attempts to show his personal life seem more and more forced and (SPOILER ALERT), ultimately, the inclusion of his deathbed scene falls very far short. It comes to something when Abe’s demise is far better handled in the otherwise ridiculous Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. That movie opts for the far less explicit and, in its own way, far more emotive scene of Lincoln’s horse and carriage fading off into the night, carrying him to the fate we already know he’s doomed to meet only hours later. Spielberg, however, decides to attempt to recreate Alonzo Chappel’s painting The Last Hours of Abraham Lincoln, complete with Daniel Day Lewis curled up and limp in white sheets as one of the other characters barks yet another soundbite upon the President’s passing. This crassly dissolves into a bizarre CGI effect of Lincoln appearing in the flickering flame of a candle delivering one of his famous speeches – leaving a bad aftertaste.
Despite its script, Lincoln does remain a well shot and incredibly well acted series of conversations. Daniel Day Lewis surpasses even his own gold standard of quality by not only acting as Abraham Lincoln, but apparently actually becoming him. The actor really is the fleshy equivalent of the technology that brought back Tupac as a hologram. DDL’s version of Honest Abe sees him almost as a weary, kindly old Headmaster, sat amongst a wealth of bickering schoolboys. It’s flawless to the point of being eerie. There is also a lot of fun to be had from Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens too, and the whole cast (which includes the likes of John Hawkes, Jackie Earl Haley, a severely underused Joseph Gordon Levitt and a great, punchy outing for Lee Pace) are uniformly impressive.
If you strip away the fat and jargon from Lincoln you’re left with a hero worshipping piece of Oscar bait that is merely masquerading as a great biopic. This is certainly not the film that the Lincoln story deserves but, in dark and uncertain days such as these, it might just be the one America needs right now.
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