Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is most alive when dead people are on screen. The film opens with a gory, brutally violent battle scene reminiscent of the visceral, unforgettable D-day sequence Spielberg presented in Saving Private Ryan. Near the end of the film, there is another battlefield scene, this time depicting the agonizing aftermath of war, piles of bodies blown apart, dead eyes wide to the heavens. It is electrifying filmmaking but, with a 150 minute running time, these precious few moments about death are the liveliest in the whole film.
Lincoln has everything we have come to expect from a “big” movie except for one thing: compelling drama. Lincoln is long, slow and preachy. That the film is pretty static and stagy should be no big surprise given that it was written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner. Therein lies the problem. Lincoln the film probably would have been much better as Lincoln the play, with lots of great monologues and personal moments but very little in the way of motion. The art of cinema is telling stories with pictures and motion pictures, rather than relying on dialogue.
Somehow, the arduous behind-the-scenes struggle to win votes for the 13th Amendment here winds up having about as much energy as a family trying to decide what to have for dinner. Many people probably do not know about how much wheeling and dealing, lobbying and rule bending it took to finally abolish slavery and, while the movie tries to dramatize it, the effort falls flat. On the flip side, efforts to inject a degree of comedy into the proceedings generally succeed, thanks, primarily, to the reliable deadpan delivery of Tommy Lee Jones as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Thaddeus Stevens.
Much of the energy in the film comes from recognizing all of the actors as they show up on screen — “Hey, that’s James Spader!”, “Look, it’s Gale from Breaking Bad;’” “I didn’t know Tommy Lee Jones was in this,” “Joseph Gordon Levitt is in it; this must be good!” and “Is that Steve Coogan?” (It’s not).
Of course, this film is about Abraham Lincoln and the subtext is that it’s the Daniel Day Lewis show. It’s almost as if the narrative core of the plot (Inciting incident? What inciting incident? Character arc? What character arc?) is just an excuse to present a version of “the man you only thought you knew.” Lewis’ Lincoln is wildly human: folksy and genial, passionate but maybe a little passive at times, brilliant and funny, grieving the loss of his son and tortured by his hysterical, domineering wife Mary —- Sally Field in a dynamic, showy performance.
Audiences have come to expect nothing less than brilliance from Lewis — so much so that they might not notice that he is not brilliant in this role but merely very good. Is it his performance, Spielberg’s direction, Kushner’s screenplay (based on noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s well-regarded biography) or Lewis himself who puts this Lincoln on the map? Truth be told, sure he breathes life into the role, but given what Lewis had to work with, it would have been hard not to impress.
Ultimately, Lincoln feels like a high-end reenactment one might find on the History Channel — except that it goes on and on for three hours.
Lincoln is now playing in Philly-area theaters.