There’s so much in Lincoln that director Steven Spielberg gets so right, easily, that it’s hard by the time the end credits roll to weigh it all up and realise that you’ve just watched little more than a two and a half hour History Channel production. Oh, the film has that cinematic sheen, but it doesn’t have much else to make it worthwhile.
The story is, funnily enough, all about President Abraham Lincoln (played well by Daniel Day-Lewis) and the main events that make up his lasting legacy; namely, the abolition of slavery and the end of the American Civil War.
Perhaps it’s because I’m in the UK and still not entirely well-informed about the political process in America, but there was nothing in this movie that kept me actually entertained for more than a fleeting moment or two (thank goodness for Tommy Lee Jones). Now, you all may wag your finger and berate me for wanting to be entertained while Spielberg chases nobler aspirations, but that’s what I want from this kind of movie.
I knew I was getting a meaningful film, something very serious and something that looked at an important period in American history, so I didn’t expect Spielberg to warp everything suddenly and turn the film into Wild Wild West 2, but I did want something slightly less . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . snooze-inducing.
Just look at the cast. Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Bruce McGill, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Walton Goggins, Gregory Itzin. There are a few other recognisable names, but I think I’ve listed the biggest and best. A great selection, eh? All of them very talented thespians, I’m sure you’ll agree. Yet, only four get to do anything worthwhile.
Day-Lewis gives a very good impersonation of Lincoln, Sally Field is excellent as his fretting wife, David Strathairn is as good as ever in the role of William Seward and Tommy Lee Jones almost steals the whole movie as Thaddeus Stevens.
It’s obvious that Spielberg has the best intentions, but that doesn’t help make the end result any more enjoyable. It’s as if he’s been so worried about leaving out any key moments that he’s crammed everything in without a thought for the viewer, who simply has to watch a parade of people in olde worlde costumes debate and fight over the rights of people many have come to view as possessions.
The script by Tony Kushner, based partly on a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, doesn’t help. It seems to think that stopping every so often to allow Lincoln to either speak to his people or tell a good tale is the same as interspersing the events depicted with levity and moments of human interest. It isn’t. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the film is completely without human emotion, but when that emotion is almost always attached to the central issue of slavery and its potential abolition it doesn’t flesh out any of the characters, who all seem to be cut out from history books instead of drafted from them and then made into real people.
I’m sure that many other people will get more out of this film than I did, especially my American friends, but it’s not the definitive, great movie about Lincoln that many were hoping for, it’s not the best movie with Lincoln in a main role (that would be Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter so HA!) and it’s not even cracking the Top 10 Spielberg movies from the last 20 years.
DIRECTOR: STEVEN SPIELBERG
WRITER: TONY KUSHNER (BASED, IN PART, ON THE BOOK BY DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN)
STARS: DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, SALLY FIELD, DAVID STRATHAIRN, TOMMY LEE JONES, JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT, JAMES SPADER, HAL HOLBROOK, JOHN HAWKES, BRUCE MCGILL, JARED HARRIS, JACKIE EARLE HALEY, TIM BLAKE NELSON
RUNTIME: 150 MINS APPROX