Skip to comments.'Lincoln' Review: Brilliant Performances Help Redeem Bloated & Messy Script (NY Film Fesival)
Posted on 10/10/2012 5:13:29 PM PDT by drewh
Three years before he became president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln accepted the Illinois Republican Partys senatorial nomination by preaching that A house divided against itself cannot stand. Lincoln was, of course, referring to the wound of slavery, which severed the nation at the waist before he successfully abolished it in the months before his assassination (possibly by vampires). The truth of his words was realized in blood during the most violent conflict in American history, and it has proven to be one of the enduring lessons of our countrys most agreeably heroized presidency. With that in mind, its hard to forgive Steven Spielbergs portrait of that same presidencys final days for being so frustratingly conflicted about the story it wants to tell. Spielbergs smallest film since Always, Lincoln paints our sixteenth president as a single-minded man isolated by the incalculable burden of his role in this nations future, but Tony Kushners script seems uncomfortable with such an intimate scale, shoehorning in a mess of subplots and needless digressions that work to distract the movie from doing what it does best.
Lincoln ultimately compromises as a musty (if occasionally rousing) legal drama about the passing of the 13th Amendment -- erudite but bloated, the film fails to make the most of its impeccable cast, wasting a Daniel Day-Lewis performance thats so hypnotizing and human it could be confused for a resurrection.
Like the vast majority of biopics that are worth a damn, Lincoln restrains itself to covering a small sliver of its subjects life, beginning in January of 1865 and ending (long after it should) in the days following Lincolns death that April. Opening with blasts of cannon fire that dont portend the chatty courtroom saga to come, Spielbergs film introduces us to the president at the height of his approval and celebrity -- in fact, the first scene of the film finds Lukas Haas and that little Leo DiCaprio clone from Chronicle reciting the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln like kids today might spontaneously quote from a movie when they happen across their favorite actor.
Hes Abraham Lincoln: Vote Hunter. The pivotal event of Spielbergs film is the pivotal event of Lincolns life: The passage of the 13th Amendment, which provided freedom to all slaves nationwide. Like a high-stakes episode of The West Wing, Lincolns primary dramatic engine is the process by which the presidents underlings shake out the requisite number of votes required to push a bill through Congress. Every time that the movie threatens to become a true character study, it cuts away to amusing but redundant asides in which the likes of John Hawkes and James Spader (both crushing it, as per usual) try to root out key swing votes. These bits eventually pay off with the films most crowd-pleasing moments, but the juice just aint worth the squeeze.
Before long, it becomes clear that, while everything orbits around the title character, Lincoln is essentially an ensemble piece. For every thread that earns its keep -- Tommy Lee Jones essentially plays himself as Thaddeus Stevens, but he does so to brilliant effect -- theres one that distracts from the films righteous moral velocity. Joseph Gordon-Levitt puts on his game face (complete with a killer mustache) to appear as Lincolns eldest son, but his odiously dull itch to enlist as a soldier recalls that obnoxious kid from War of the Worlds, and his character is abruptly abandoned at the end of the second act in order to streamline the third.
But whenever things become so scattered or prosaic that it feels like youre watching an ill-begotten sequel to Amistad, Daniel Day-Lewis shows up to set the ship straight. To the surprise of exactly no one, Day-Lewis inhabits the guy like hes already spent 52 years in his shriveled skin. Oscar seasons favorite chameleon, Day-Lewis absolutely disappears beneath that famous hat and beard -- his Lincoln is immediately more of a human than an icon, a man like any other save for his virtue and his task. Hes wry and contemplative, a windbag prone to stories that were longer than his speeches. He desperately struggles to be an available father for his youngest boy, but is also prone to indignantly raging at his wife (Sally Field as Mary Todd), whos still reeling from the death of their son, William.
Day-Lewis wrests Lincoln from our nascent American mythology, reanimating him as a person of flesh, blood and inconceivable responsibility. Its a restrained performance, so deeply resistant to theatrics that the slow dolly shots Spielberg keeps slinging across the actors face seem incongruously overcooked in how they capture a man of such simple sentiment. Through Day-Lewis, we see how Lincolns tremendous foresight allowed him to appreciate the true extent to which the 13th Amendment would shape millions of lives for generations to come, and we feel how Lincoln was tormented by the blood on his hands and the future on his mind. Nodding to John Fords Young Mr. Lincoln, Day-Lewis never forgets the presidents background as a lawyer, and some of the characters most fascinating moments find him subverting the word of the law in order to accomplish an absolute good. These bits resound with echoes of Oskar Schindler, and Spielberg shows that he still has a rare gift for exploring the moral equivalency behind historys most profound heroics.
Even when Lincoln is offscreen, his presence is still felt. His long shadow -- made literal by Janusz Kaminskis cinematography -- looms over the scenes of Congress, in which Spielbergs direction is quietly elegant and evocative, abandoning the kinetic movements and layers of focus that bear his signature in favor of a more traditional style that recalls the likes of Otto Preminger. As a result, Lincoln sometimes feels like the best movie ever made for A&E (John Williams tossed off score only adds to this impression). While the occasional exterior shots accomplish little beyond screaming Look! We have scale!, Rick Carters stellar production design is a veritable time machine, and Kaminskis lighting illustrates the subtler side of his genius, Spielbergs regular DP opting for an under-lit and natural look that refuses to cheat Congress of their oppressive ambivalence; streams of white light blast through every window, helping the impression that Congress is ruling from on high, condemning the pettiest among them for their vain theatrics while the future of the world hangs in the balance.
But none of those moments in the Congress, as rousing as they are, feel revelatory in the slightest. Kushners script has no trouble eking suspense from known fact (we may have a black president, but youll still be biting your nails as the cast announces their votes on the 13th Amendment), but Spielbergs smallest movie in nearly 30 years is still too big. Had the film buckled down on Lincoln, it could have been a remarkable study of a good man who gamed the system in order to better the world, but the films outsized vision makes it feel like a problematically narrow portrait of a nation fighting for the ideals upon which it was founded.
Lincolns kaleidoscopic approach invites you to question why there are so few roles for African-Americans, or why Thaddeus Stevens wife is used as a punchline. The movie has the opportunity to be precise, and instead it tries to be definitive. As a result, Lincoln is a stirring history lesson, sure to be a new favorite film for substitute teachers across the country, but a film so determined to help us remember our history cant afford to be so easily forgotten.
Note: This review is based on an unfinished version of the film that screened at the New York Film Festival. It officially arrives in theaters on November 9.
It was very difficult to read that review. And why review an “unfinished” movie anyway?
I’m convinced not to waste my money.
Nodding to John Fords Young Mr. Lincoln, Day-Lewis never forgets the presidents background as a lawyer, and some of the characters most fascinating moments find him subverting the word of the law in order to accomplish an absolute good.The ends justifies the means.
The favorite liberal meme.
Daniel Day-Lewis was great in Last of the Mohicans, and he’s apparently cleared the bar as Lincoln.
I will have to see this movie.
This film was written by Tony Kushner, the same guy who wrote Munich. I will not be watching it.
Daniel Day-Lewis is the best actor working today IMO.
There, fixed it.
Vengeance is a well known fraudulent work in historical circles, but Kushner succeeded in making it even more odious than just a careless work of fiction. Directed by a Jewish filmmaker who produced the Lawrence of Arabia of Holocaust films to boot.
My childhood is filled with memories of wonderful Spielberg films, but everything after Saving Private Ryan has been a dud in my opinion. And in the case of Munich, a truly reprehensible dud; a disgusting film. I don't know why Spielberg seems so enamored with a con-artist like Kushner. It's somewhat bewildering, except when you realize that leftism erodes the mind and soul.
Minority Report is the one exception to Spielberg’s post-Ryan mediocrity.
The latest Lincoln movie is based on a book by the admitted serial plagerizer Doris Kerns Goodwin.
It is directed by one of the biggest liberals in the world.
Lincoln in reality was a white supremist racist who thought blacks were inferior to whites and he wanted them shipped back to Africa.
He was nothing in the world but a two-bit railroad lawyer doing the bidding of the Northern industrial tycoons. They were his bosses. Lincoln stomped all over the Constitution when he sent his armies South to murder fellow Americans. If the South had won, and they would have won if they hadn’t ran out of men to fight, Lincoln and the equally murdering psychopath Sherman would have been hanged from the highest tree.
The south could never win. Thank God.
Hilariously, the fable of the War of Northern Aggression doesn't square too well with black people in chains.
If the South had won
Yes, of course. What if Superman grew up in Nazi Germany? What if Eleanor Roosevelt could fly?
Lincoln and the equally murdering psychopath Sherman would have been hanged from the highest tree.
Clearly in your world, black people in chains is the preferable arc of history, with the rest of us sitting on the veranda sipping juleps.
Might-could happen again.
If alive today Lincoln would be a big government democrat/socialist. He destroyed the government of the states and consolidated all power in Washington,DC. Now we are all slaves to the Federal government, exactly what the Founding Fathers did not want. And all believed in secession.
Lincoln a “democrat/socialist”? I gotta go with IncPen’s assessment.
“Clearly in your world, black people in chains is the preferable arc of history, with the rest of us sitting on the veranda sipping julep”.
Lincoln didn’t give a damn about slaves and only made slavery an issue when he wanted a “moral” reason to murder Southerners. He was also scared to death that England would side with the CSA so he started mouthing off about how bad slavery was, knowing that he would get sympathy from England. And never forget his bogus Emancipation didn’t free the first slave. He has no jurisdiction in the CSA, and of course didn’t “free” any slaves in the border states of Maryland and Kentucky. There it was perfectly OK to keep your slaves if you were helping Lincol conduct mass genocide on the Southern states.
Lincoln was a lying, two-bit railroad lawyer who was the doing the bidding of the Northern Industrial millionares who controlled him. Here’s what he really thought about slaves.
“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races - that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied everything.”
(1809-1865) 16th US President
Fourth Debate with Stephen A. Douglas at Charleston, Illinois, September 18, 1858
(The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume III, pp. 145-146.)
So was most of the country back then.
Kinda makes you wonder what he’s doing on a conservative site.