Monday, April 15, 2013

Movie Review: Lincoln

Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s treatment of Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis)’s final months, may be a passable history lesson. However, it’s a pretty mediocre movie. The picture focuses on the effort in early 1865 to pass the constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery. Apart from some occasionally salty language, it appears intended for middle-school social-studies classes. Spielberg and Kushner seem to have no faith that the audience has even the most basic history under its belt. The film assumes one doesn’t know the amendment will pass, or that the Civil War is about to end. Certain material is cheesily used for suspense purposes, including a Confederate peace delegation whose presence could undermine passage, as well as the decision by Lincoln’s son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to enlist. The dialogue is often overstuffed with exposition, and it gets insultingly repetitive at times. By the halfway point, one may want to throw things every time “13th amendment” and “Constitution” are used in the same sentence. Spielberg appears straitjacketed by the material. Most of the scenes occur in darkened rooms, and the staging and camerawork rarely rise above the ordinary. That said, the film is handsomely produced, and he gets good work from the cast. The detailed, disciplined performance by Day-Lewis is the sort of thing one is supposed to admire rather than enjoy--he’s rather remote--but he has humor, and he isn’t dull. Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the fiery abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, is the most engaging of the actors. Stevens is a wild card even if one knows the history, and Jones gives him an outsized theatricality and a hilarious deadpan wit. The other standouts are James Spader, who is quite funny as a sleazy, uncouth lobbyist, and David Strathairn, who plays Secretary of State William Seward with considerable gravitas. Sally Field does a fine job as Mary Todd Lincoln, the high-strung First Lady, but most of her scenes are extraneous to the main narrative, and they generally slow the picture down. Again, the history lesson, not aesthetics, seems paramount. The film is based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.


Matt said...

First, most people don't have the basic history under their belt.
Second, Day Lewis plays the character remote, however it's the best more real Lincoln I've seen on screen. Third, the aesthetics is more sophisticated than you think. The cinematography and editing in particular are top notch they just aren't showy - this isn't Tarantino. Fourth, okay, I give up. I thought this a terrfic movie on all levels. The script is terrific. I have to ask, did you see the movie in the movie theatre or did you watch it at home? I watched it on a large screen the week it opened and fond it one of the best movies of last year. And I'm not a Spielberg fan. But I am a fan of American History. Oh well.

Robert Stanley Martin said...

First, people who are going to respond to an award-bait marketing campaign tend to be decently educated. They certainly can be expected to know that slavery ended via constitutional amendment, the Civil War ended in 1865, and Lincoln was killed shortly thereafter.

Second, it should be clear from the review that I thought Day-Lewis did a quite professional job. As a rule, though, I tend to be rather cold to performances that ask me to admire the actor rather than engage with the character.

Three, Spielberg is a highly polished filmmaker even at his worst. I just found his efforts here rather pedestrian. I wasn't faulting him for stinting on flash. He just doesn't handle chamber drama with much elan.

Four, I saw it at home. I don't see movies in theaters anymore because my ears can't take the sound levels. I'm glad you enjoyed it more than I did. People can disagree without being wrong.