Okay, so I realize I’ll be in the minority here, but Lincoln is an excruciating, plodding piece of filmmaking. The performances are good. I’ll get that out of the way early here. There’s no way that Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t get an Academy nomination, if not another win. It’s Spielberg and Kaminski, so of course it’s going to be quite assured and look very pretty.
Now the bad. And it’s a laundry list. Let’s start with the first full scene. After a brief battle-scene intro we cut to two soldiers standing in front of an unknown figure. As these two soldiers speak, the camera pulls away from them, revealing the back of Abe Lincoln.
Now two new soldiers approach. The topic turns to the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln is genial and friendly. The soldiers are called away to their respective units (Cavalries? Battalions?). All but one leave. One still stands in awe at Lincoln. And he slowly completes the end of the Gettysburg Address that seconds earlier one of his fellow soldiers had trouble remembering. As he says these final, historical lines he turns and walks away, still reverently speaking aloud.
This beginning scene is indicative of several problems (3.5 by my count) in the film:
1) Spielberg’s view of Lincoln. Spielberg is in complete awe. It’s not even awe, actually. Lincoln is a god in Spielberg’s eyes. He treats him with a reverence that feels like wide-eyed naivete. And he treats him this way visually. From the slow “Spielberg-ian” dollies in, to the absurd number of times that Lincoln is shown in silhouette, or against a bright, ethereal light, to this Lincoln Memorial-like opening. Visually, Spielberg presents Lincoln as a deity. And it’s tiresome. There’s such a thing as being too in love with your subject.
Other biopics have treated similarly revered characters with more success. Look at Attenborough’s Gandhi. Not a perfect film at all but, like Lincoln, Gandhi (the men, not the films) is historically thought of as a peace-loving individual who has only gained in stature over time and post-assassination. But in Attenborough’s hands Gandhi is a human man who fights for a global cause. In Spielberg’s hand Lincoln is an infallible figure who fights for a human cause (indeed, Lincoln makes, by my count, two mistakes in the film. One is referenced in a fight with his wife, and he justifies it selflessly, and the other is a white-lie with only the purest of intentions).
2) I realize that screenwriter Tony Kushner is a playwright, so it comes as no surprise that Lincoln is talky. Okay, I can deal with that. But every speech (and man, are there a lot of them), is so sickeningly triumphant, so jingoistically impassioned, that the film ultimately unfolds as a series of successful (meaning ‘significant and patriotic’) monologues, each grander and more teary-eyed than the last. Monologues are expected here. After all, we do spend much time in court. But why does every single one have to be dripping with self-righteous idealism? My problem is not – let me be very clear on this – that the film and the speeches are nationalistic. No issue there. It’s that every single extended bit of solo dialogue is impassioned and celebratory. It’s sort of anti-drama. Where’s the reverse? Where’s the opposition? I’ll tell you where it is in Lincoln. It’s in a few half-hearted montages that are played mostly for comedy and a quick “almost got ya” moment where, for a moment in court, the south seems on the verge of success. Otherwise? Nothing much to speak of.
3) Cheesy blocking. How many times in this film does a character have to slowly stand and watch reverently (I could use that word throughout this post and not use it too much) as the demigod walks slowly away? How many times does someone have to look on awe-struck as Lincoln himself walks into the room? How many times can Lincoln walk or sit, head down, hands clasped, the calm amidst the storm?
And a side note/question: How many times does everyone in the room have to laugh at long stories that aren’t actually always that funny? There’s a running joke in Lincoln. It’s that Abe always – at the height of tension – will stop and tell an overlong tale. It’s his character. He’s a good guy. He releases tension. He’s loquacious but likable. Even the members of his cabinet that get tired of it still smile at the punch line. Well, I’ll tell you what – I got damn tired of it. It became pretty far from endearing by the end.
3.5) This is only 1/2 because it’s classic Spielberg. I’m no Spielberg hater. I love plenty of his films – Jaws, Catch Me if You Can, Munich, Indiana Jones, Minority Report. But sometimes I’d be really, really happy if the camera did something besides a) dolly slowly in, b) dolly slowly out, or c) crane slowly up.
Still – an apology here – he’s a damn good blocker.
There’s still one more huge glaring issue with this film. That’s John Williams’ score. It’s not so much the score itself. That’s what you would expect from Williams and a film called Lincoln. No, it’s the use of the score, which consistently undercuts any tension.
Case-in-point: Tommy Lee Jones (excellent in the film) is about to give a crucial answer to the House. It’s a tense moment, actually. Instead of letting that tension simmer until the point of the reveal of Jones’ intentions, we get Williams’ score coming in. It’s too early. And it’s too obviously optimistic. Before we even hear what Jones has to say we already know it…because the music tells us. It’s so frustrating.
There’s one really great thing about Lincoln aside from the acting. That’s the ability to make something that the majority of the audience already knows the outcome to suspenseful. The final vote on the 13th Amendment is just that. It’s suspenseful. Even if you know only the tiniest bit about American history you know what happens. But Spielberg’s crosscutting, and traditional reaction shots are really successful here.