Abraham Lincoln has been the focus of more book and movie titles than any other American president in history, and deservedly so even if you take away the tragic assassination. To sit in the chair that decides the future of an entire nation, knowing that half of that nation will not just hate you but strongly consider acting on that hate, is a task that no good man would either ask for or shy away from. As compelling as that amounts to as historical drama, it doesn’t guarantee cinematic drama, not even with one of the most successful film directors behind it.
Lincoln opens on a Civil War battlefield with soldiers stabbing, shooting, punching, and even drowning their national brothers. The President (Daniel Day-Lewis) talks to several black soldiers who show their enthusiasm and support by reciting the Gettysburg Address. President Lincoln is a simultaneous picture of both the statesman and the everyman. Then, just as the soldiers trudged along a muddy road towards the next rainy battlefield, the movie also hit a muddy road.
It bothered me that I couldn’t immerse myself into the film, and it equally bothers me that I cannot precisely explain why. Lincoln, emotionally and visually, is a dark. Realistically, there was no electricity, and it seems that Spielberg wanted to stick to the times and rely mainly on candles and oil lamps. Most rooms are on the dreary side, dimly lit backgrounds and shadowed faces, and it gave a snoozy feel to the majority of the two and a half hours.
Lincoln is not an action film. It’s not about the Civil War but the war behind the war. When Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” he meant that the split decision on slavery would result in a country falling apart, which was in process. Congress was fighting for their regional perceptions of what America had been and should continue to be versus what it should instead become. Again, historical drama but not cinematic drama. It’s a lot of talking, subtle attempts at making back-alley deals, but not courtroom drama-type debating, finger pointing, book slamming, and gavel pounding. Abe was a soft-spoken figure, and it was a stretch to have a few scenes in which he actually drummed up some anger and raised his voice at the surrounding representatives. Then he found a quiet place to sit, read, and think. On at least one of those occasions, I too was in a quiet place to sit, think, and sleep. I’m not proud that I fell asleep at least twice during the film, and it is entirely possible that I missed something that would have changed my opinion, but the person next to me said that wasn’t the case.
Spielberg tries to sprinkle a little emotion in a few places. You can’t have Sally Field at Mrs. Lincoln without taking your eyes off her. She’s the most compelling character on screen and the only one who really shows much life, but her husband reacts to her as if she is crazy. Having lost three children already and facing the loss of their fourth (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and last to the war will do that to you. The few scenes we’ve seen of a hyped-up Lincoln feel out of place. In the most memorable outburst he yells that he is “The President of the United States, clothed in immense power!” And then he sends two very minor figures to go off and make things happen. This is necessary because, as President, he didn’t have the legal ability to influence the vote on the vote for the Thirteenth Amendment. It would have been an impeachable offense, thus dispatching the lackeys to do the dirty work. Appearances by Hal Holbrook (everything), Tommy Lee Jones (everything else), and David Strathairn (A League of Their Own, Eight Men Out) do little to contribute to either the story or the drama and mainly are there to help the costume designer look good.
By the time Congress sits to vote, it felt anti-climactic. We knew how the vote would go. Spielberg knew that we knew. However, his attempt to add drama to the moment did nothing but cheapen the moment. More than one member of Congress is seen casting and then changing his vote. Several mumble and stutter, still not certain as the words leave their lips. It certainly seems as if Congress was nothing more than babbling fools, incapable of making an informed decision. For those of us who look back at our Founding Fathers with respect, the vote scene seems to knock the pedestal out from under them.
I love history. I love anything Presidential and have read many biographies about the great men of the 1700’s including Washington, Franklin, John Adams, and Jefferson, so it wasn’t a matter of a high school flashback that lulled the life out of me. My apologies to Mr. Lustbader from sophomore social studies because I would have much rather listened to yet another of your lectures instead sitting through Spielberg’s Lincoln. To borrow from someone else, Lincoln is an important film, but it’s not a great film.
Teacher gives it a C-.