I’m having one of those “I think I saw a different movie” experiences with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. I was watching TV last night and a commercial for the movie came on and it was loaded with pull quotes from various critics, which included words like brilliant and masterpiece. I don’t trust pull quotes in general (and this is why) but I have been discussing Lincoln with others who have seen it and I find myself in the minority that do not think this movie is either brilliant or a masterpiece. It’s an okay movie, don’t get me wrong, it’s just didn’t blow me away with amazingness. While Daniel Day-Lewis does give a masterful performance as Abraham Lincoln, and the film does feature a stellar supporting ensemble, Lincoln is a fairly paint-by-numbers biopic of the closest thing we have to a national saint. Which is a shame, because Lincoln The Man is infinitely more interesting than Lincoln The Myth.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, though, that Spielberg’s film is focused more on the myth than the man. Spielberg has always been less interested in people and more interested in mythology. For the most part, this works in his favor (see also: Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List), but over the last decade or so, it has started to wear down his storytelling. I saw it a little in Saving Private Ryan, where his characters were less actual people and more walking archetypes, and it flat-out ruined War Horse, what with its magical horse-thinking. The mythmaking doesn’t go quite that far Lincoln, but it does, at times, impede the much more fascinating look at Lincoln as president during an incredibly desperate, tumultuous time in our nation’s history.
There’s a scene toward the end of the film between Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Mad Men). The two sit together in silence in the immediate aftermath of the Siege of Petersburg, after Lincoln has reviewed the battle field (super kudos to production designer Rick Carter, a frequent Spielberg collaborator, and the set decoration team of Jim Erickson and Peter Frank for recreating the battlefield with unsentimental photo reality). “I’ve never seen the like,” Lincoln says, clearly shattered by the carnage. Grant responds, “We always knew what this would be.” THAT should have been the end of the scene. Two people who would be remembered as great, but who in that moment are just sad old men, commiserating. No sentimentality, no preaching, no FOR HISTORY! speechifying.
Unfortunately, the scene descends into FOR HISTORY! speechifying in the kind of conversation I’m 99.9% positive never actually would have occurred not least because it would have utterly mortified the modest, self-deprecating Lincoln. That scene is repeated throughout the film, to varying degrees of ridiculousness. The conversation Lincoln has with his wife’s black maid on the steps of the White House is downright ludicrous. These FOR HISTORY! moments play into the mythmaking at the expense of the more interesting character portrait, and more often than not, they kill the pace of the movie.
Tony Kushner’s script focuses on the last few months of the war/Lincoln’s life, particularly how he shoved the 13th Amendment, the one banning slavery, down Congress’s throat in the wake of his re-election. This is what is so fascinating about Lincoln. He’s the “great emancipator” and a symbol of equality and forward-thinking, he’s our fair-minded President-Hero, and he—more than any other president, including George W. Bush—ran roughshod all over the constitution and civil liberties. When Lincoln bellows, “I am clad in immense power,” it’s a deeply uncomfortable moment for both the audience and the contemporaries in the scene with him. Lincoln is shown engaging in wholesale corruption, selling government jobs to buy “yes” votes, double-dealing on potential peace talks with the South, and kinda-sorta lying to Congress, even though he knows it’s an impeachable offense.
This Lincoln, the ruthless politician who will do anything to pass his amendment, is contrasted with his “public” face, that of the country lawyer who speaks almost exclusively in parables and tells stories incessantly, much to his cabinet’s chagrin. It’s a stark duality that innervates the whole movie and Day-Lewis handles it deftly, sliding between Lincoln as he cajoles his war department, berates his illicit team of political roustabouts (John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader, who steals every scene he’s in), and shouts down Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) and Robert Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in private. It’s a helluva performance from Day-Lewis, backed ably by his sprawling supporting cast peopled by some of the best character actors working today. Tommy Lee Jones is actually awake for the first time on screen in years as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a staunch abolitionist and pro-equality supporter, and Spader and Field both deliver stand-out scenes, though the “Lincoln’s family” stuff tends to detract from the more interesting political intrigue (JGL is essentially unnecessary).
There are two technical aspects of the film, though, that nearly overwhelm the outstanding acting: the ending, which is crap, and the lighting, which is garbage. Spielberg often struggles to resolve his films, usually trundling on for several minutes past the film’s logical conclusion, and Lincoln is no different. While Spielberg’s coda isn’t horrible—little Tad Lincoln (Gulliver McGrath, Dark Shadows) will tug on your heartstrings—it’s redundant simply because the movie actually ended five minutes ago, in a more graceful and satisfying way. But Spielberg is building a myth and certainly the assassination is part of that. The coda is entirely about myth-making; Lincoln The Man exited stage left in the hallway. As for the lighting—it’s GARBAGE. This is the worst-lit film in recent memory. Blinding glare, washouts, obfuscating shadows, and a peculiar flatness that leaches background detail from the scenery—it’s appalling.
Lincoln is, in many respects, a very fine film, but a predilection to feeding mythology at the expense of characterization and intrusion of some poor technical choices keeps it from being a true masterpiece. It’s worth seeing anyway, for Day-Lewis’s uncanny rendering of Lincoln and for the ensemble cast working around him, but I can’t call this the best picture of the year. Not when I alternated between rolling my eyes at cheesy FOR HISTORY! moments and squinting through the awful lighting.