Around the 75 minute mark of Lincoln, I noticed my wife fidgeting in her seat. I leaned over to ask if she was ok, since she had been looking forward to this particular movie. She rolled her eyes, sighed, and declared, "It's Tommy Lee Jones in a funny wig." I chuckled, careful not to offend a mostly older audience that seemed captivated. Minutes later, I handed over the car keys so that she could find a more entertaining way to fill her weekend afternoon (i.e. Marshalls). Now alone with my thoughts and popcorn, I refocused my attention to the screen, hoping the second half would prove more involving than the first. Although the pace intensified as the film built to a climax, I eventually left the theater thinking her brief summary had somehow been on target.
Where was the magic? This years encore presentation of Lincoln, following last summers slight but entertaining Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is a two and half hour account of the fight to pass the 13th amendment. Naturally, a movie poster featuring the scroll for the Bill of Rights wouldn't sell too many tickets, so instead we have the 16th president's distinguished mug taking the form of our generations most intense actor, Daniel Day-Lewis. To be sure, the two-time Oscar winner looks great in the role and disappears into the title character within minutes of the opening credits. The film is handsomely designed, intelligent about politics, and contains the years most impressive roll call of actors. And yet, the most accurate compliment I can pay Steven Spielberg's newest prestige pic is that there is nothing overtly wrong with it.
Lincoln is a curiously lifeless epic, despite some of the most talented behind-the-scenes people in the film industry. Spielberg chose several frequent collaborators for this project, including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and maestro John Williams. Make no mistake, this will be an awards contender. Except for the upcoming Les Miserables, I suspect Lincoln will be flush with more nominations than any other 2012 release. These will probably include best picture, director, lead actor, supporting actress (Sally Field as Mary Todd), supporting actor (Jones as Thaddeus Stevens), adapted screenplay (Tony Kushner), original score, cinematography, film editing, costume & production design, makeup, and possibly sound editing & mixing.
Lincoln is undoubtedly the years most loquacious movie with numerous monologues and anecdotes, as well as debates both within the White House and between political parties. Much opposition to the proposed amendment that would eventually end slavery involves the ongoing Civil War, which we are told might've ended faster had Lincoln dropped his more pressing agenda. Though no student of history or politics, I was able to follow most of the dialogue once I got passed certain language that didn't seem all that far removed from Shakespeare. But I would argue "most dialogue" doesn't necessarily equate with most successful script. Reportedly Kushner's first screenplay stretched some 700 pages, an unfilmable amount. He and Spielberg wisely opted to focus on a shorter, paramount period in Lincoln's life. However, I'm not convinced they made sufficient character cuts to accommodate this reduction.
This is a giant cast, but other than Day-Lewis and maybe David Strathairn, who plays right-hand man and Secretary of State William Seward, no actor has more than a handful of scenes. That we come to recognize these characters at all has more to do with audience familiarity with their faces than writing depth. I'm sure this project generated huge interest throughout Hollywood. How else to explain brief appearances by Hal Holbrook, Bruce McGill, Gloria Reuben, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Jackie Earle Haley? John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and James Spader turn up as an amusing 19th century version of Three Stooges lobbyists trying to secure votes needed to pass the 13th amendment. Even Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who became a bona fide movie star in 2012, has only a few scenes as Lincoln's son Robert. None of the them are bad or even miscast, so much as superfluous as presented in the final cut.
Spielberg's film feels trapped on the surface, lacking the emotional resonance that helped define his best dramatic works. His unmistakable visual flair, a trademark in everything from Close Encounters to Minority Report, is largely muted in Lincoln, almost as if he didn't want to upstage the material. There are a few shots depicting the aftermath of battle, but nothing to pack the punch of Saving Private Ryan. Kushner's background as a playwright is apparent throughout: large individual sets, heavy chatter, little action. What's surprising is that he also wrote Munich, a more demanding examination of political themes that simultaneously managed to raise the viewers pulse. In that film, audiences were allowed inside the head of Eric Bana's character, whereas Lincoln continually seems just outside our reach. Schindler's List, which remains the directors crowning achievement, contained three exceptionally well-developed leading roles. Spielberg correctly realized this structure would be far more effective than presenting a dozen one-dimensional characters. I wish he had remembered that here.
I never felt completely engaged by Lincoln, and repeatedly got the impression that Spielberg wasn't as connected to this material as with his previously mentioned efforts. Amistad, which depicted a mutiny aboard a slave ship heading to America, was another historical drama from Spielberg that fell somewhat short of expectations. I suppose this isn't entirely shocking given his background. The most famous Jewish filmmaker of all time, he has spoken at length in the past about deep feelings toward the Holocaust and the 1972 Olympic Games massacre. His father served as a Communications Chief in a B-25 Squadron during World War II. Even Indiana Jones' most formidable adversaries were the Nazis. Maybe personal passion needs to fuel the engine to be at your best.
Lincoln is a professional, workmanlike production. If the subject interests you, it's certainly worth seeing. But it falls considerably short of greatness, despite what academy lobbyists will tell you. In an election year featuring a double dose of Lincoln, I knew I would favor whichever film took more chances. I never dreamed it would be the one with vampires.