Movie Review: Lincoln
By Matthew Huntley
November 26, 2012
In the end, we all know what happened, but the purpose of Lincoln is to show how it happened and the lengths and strategies the men and women would go to see that it did. The most famous among these was Lincoln’s equally stubborn and vocal wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), who played an integral role in Lincoln’s decisions. The film suggests he was even slightly afraid of her and worried about her reaction should he make the wrong decision. We see what he means when she gives a good talking to Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the ardent abolitionist and Radical Republican from Pennsylvania.
It’s easy to call out Day-Lewis, Field and Jones because they have the meatiest roles in the film, but they are among a cast of excellent actors, a list that includes David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill and Tim Blake Nelson. Clearly, Spielberg had every intention of making his film with the highest of class.
The film concentrates on the unrelenting conversations, debates and lobbying that took place at this time, both personal and public, until voting day on January 31, 1865. Most of this is one-sided and from the perspective of Lincoln and his family, but the important thing is for us to get a sense of the amendment’s breadth and that it entangled and affected so many people. That much Spielberg gets across and Lincoln, as a result, works as a thoughtful history lesson. And the production and costume designers have faithfully brought the era to life. There’s a reason they call a movie like this Oscar bait and it’s sure to be nominated for its technical richness as much as its performances.
But as accurate and interesting as the film is, it’s not always entertaining or engaging as a story. There were parts of Lincoln that felt longwinded, drawn out and redundant. At times, Kushner lays the grandstanding speeches on a little thick and the dialogue often sounds wrought and unnatural. Perhaps this was the point - for the delivery to sound rehearsed and histrionic, as a means of showing off the times. But it’s done to the point that we grow weary and say to ourselves, “Here we go again” (the president even has his Secretary of War saying, “I can’t stand to listen to another one of your stories”). John Williams’ mawkish score underlines it all and the entire emotional effect feels a tad laborious and excessive.
I don’t want to make it sound like any of this is outright bad, but parts of Lincoln are admittedly dry and I wish Spielberg had spiced things up by not using so many long takes, tracking shots and deep focus. Perhaps if he cut more and moved his camera around, he could have brought more energy to the screen. I should point out my use of the word entertaining simply means the film doesn’t always move like it should. A movie can be about any subject as important as Abraham Lincoln or the abolition of slavery, but that doesn’t make it a good default. It still has to be well made.
And Lincoln is well made, not to mention superbly acted, but it’s also slow and often too heavy emotionally. Still, I encourage anyone to see it so they can be reminded of how painstaking a process it was (and still is) just to grant other human beings something as simple as freedom. Nowadays, of course, it’s amazing to think such an issue was even up for debate. Lincoln was a man who set out to make sure it no longer could be, at least not in the United States. Spielberg’s film reaffirms in us the notion that liberty is indeed a right, even though many, in Lincoln’s time, believed it was a privilege.