Lincoln (2012), dir. Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, though I have no doubt as to the high aspirations behind it, comes off as some pretty perfunctory filmmaking. But that should come as no surprise, as Spielberg’s directorial talents have never really lent themselves to serious subject matter. The hallmark films of Spielberg’s career—Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark—if there is any commonality between them, it is that they all possess a child-like sense of wonder, plus they are just plain fun to watch. Whenever Spielberg, throughout his illustrious career felt compelled to diverge toward what he must have perceived as loftier filmmaking, the end result comes up flat. He’s been able to effectively fool a lot of people otherwise by hiding behind sensitive material. Be it the various aspects of WWII he’s covered, or slavery, all of those films have lacked the keen sense of wonder and adventure that he built his career upon. When he foregoes the use of this innate talent, what we are often left with is characterless filmmaking. It’s lamentable to add that even his more recent attempts at the style of films he used to excel at, such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or Tintin have also been disappointments. It seems as though all youthful exuberance has been sapped from the man whose ego is legendary in Hollywood.
Lincoln is not in any way a disappointment. But at the same time, it isn’t a milestone picture in any sense. Set in 1865, toward the conclusion of the Civil War, the film chronicles the events that led to Abraham Lincoln pushing through what many consider the crown of his achievements, the Thirteenth Amendment, which effectively banned slavery in the United States. The film presents the bowdlerized version of the Civil War taught in our public schools, in which the issue of slavery was the sole cause of the war. Pushing political correctness aside, the film does offer a highly detailed view into how our country’s legislative process functions, with much consideration to the agendas of the two major political parties, and the necessary voting margins one must achieve to pass a piece of legislation through. While the process itself is not all that complicated, the personal and political agendas implicit are what adds zest to the whole mechanism. With so many people directly involved, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed at the sheer number of characters in this film, especially since none are given their proper due. While the acting is terrific all around, we are really only given superficial glimpses of these people—Lincoln included.
Abraham Lincoln is a personage of such historical significance that the difficulty of having him portrayed in film is that he may come off as a caricature, rather than a living, breathing person. Daniel Day-Lewis is a marvelous actor, but I feel he may have been miscast. He certainly looks the part, and is more than capable of exhibiting the kind of passion one would expect from a man of Lincoln’s mettle, but during the picture I was always aware that what I was seeing was Daniel Day-Lewis’s impersonation of Lincoln when I would have liked to have seen a more convincing depiction. The voice of Lincoln has always puzzled me. There has always been a distinct, yet stereotypical voice attached to Abraham Lincoln. Be it the animatronic Abraham Lincoln at Disneyland, or the Abraham Lincoln from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure the voice has remained a constant. Given that no audio recordings of Lincoln exist, his voice must have been passed down aurally by people who had heard it and were capable of emulating it. There is something about Daniel Day-Lewis’s version of the voice that is unsettling. It may be that it is pitched too high, or perhaps Day-Lewis had some difficulty emulating an American accent (few British actors can do this convincingly), but it’s a bit off, and given the amount of dialogue he has it becomes irksome after a while.
This is a really a picture about an event in history and not about the man, Abraham Lincoln. There are a few poignant scenes in which Lincoln relays the personal importance of having the Thirteenth Amendment passed, but little insight is provided as to what led him to hold these convictions other than his own interpretation of the words “all men are created equal”. The film however does present some very odd and fascinating insights into what the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) was, and the result is quite shocking at times. At one point Abe tells her he should have had her admitted to a mad house. Spats like these beg the question of what kind of a husband Lincoln actually was, especially since most people view him simply as “the man who ended slavery”, or “the guy on the five dollar bill.”
Lincoln is well written and finely acted, but the direction is uninspired. I felt, as I have felt many times in the past, that Spielberg is just running through the motions. I’m almost certain he didn’t approach it that way, but the workman-like construction of this film left me feeling somewhat detached when I should have felt profound emotion for one of our nation’s greatest presidents.