27 January 2013

Review: Lincoln

(Dir: Steven Spielberg, 2012)

Oh how I miss the Spielberg of old. You know the one, the Spielberg who gave us exciting films that alternately wowed and thrilled us. I don’t need to name names, you know them all. I miss that Spielberg because the one we have now seems preoccupied with weighty serious films whose quality doesn’t stack up anywhere close to his similar older films, and when he’s recently aimed for fun it’s been a real misfire. So here we are looking at another serious drama from the man, this time about a month in the life of Abraham Lincoln. 

Lincoln tells a story from history that is most certainly worthy of being told - the President’s attempt to pass the thirteenth amendment, that will abolish slavery, through the House of Representatives in 1865 and the stand-off with the confederacy over the seemingly never-ending Civil War. This bill was a major turning point in the development of that nation and it’s alternately fascinating and shocking to hear how it was perceived by many, chiefly the Democrats of the time. The film is as much about the politics as it is about the man.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln in what is yet another powerhouse performance from the actor. He acts so seldomly (it’s been 3 years since his last role in Nine), that whenever he appears on screen it’s almost jarring because you find yourself deliberately watching the man and how he inhabits these roles. He’s a master. Everyone today knows how Lincoln looked but not truly how he moved or sounded but Day-Lewis’ portrayal is perfectly believable and he makes it so very easy to see why the people loved him. He’s not alone as Sally Field is excellent too as Mary Todd who has plenty of issues, and the two seem to bounce perfectly off each other. Tommy Lee Jones puts in a performance of note as Thaddeus Stevens, also representing the serious political heart of the film. It’s a strong role and he has some great lines. Lincoln is also a who’s who of decent supporting actors making it always fascinating to see who will crop up next in period dress.

Quality of the acting and worthiness of the story aside, Lincoln has problems. I’m fascinated by American politics but even here it becomes tiresome to watch. It’s a film of verbosity, at times endlessly so, and two and a half hours for what it’s trying to cover certainly feels excessive when presented this way, to the point where I really struggled to retain interest during the middle portion of the film. The scenes in the House of Representatives are always intriguing but there’s so much unnecessary political verbiage outside of this that it makes the film feel too cold and clinical. I should be careful about complaining about that as Spielberg can be far too heavy handed when it comes to ladling on emotion, which does happen a couple of times here, but it really could’ve used a bit more soul somewhere in there.

Lincoln isn’t a bad film, not by any means, it’s just not a particularly great one. It seems to be reaching for the grandiose but suffers from self importance as a result of the part of history it’s covering. It’s right we see this highlighted, but as a film, without the fantastic lead perfomances anchoring it, it would certainly seem a far more hollow affair. They lift Lincoln to a point higher than it deserves as at its core it is an overly weighty and unnecessarily lengthy drama that would’ve really benefited from streamlining how much of this part of history it shows us. Still, at least it’s better than the bland dirge that was War Horse. I really can’t wait for fun Spielberg to come back and rejoin us.

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