3 February 2013 | dromasca
Abraham Lincoln deserved a better film
'Lincoln' is one of the bigger favorites for Oscar Awards this year and will certainly be one of the heroes of the evening in Hollywood a few weeks from now. It is made by one of the greatest directors of our time, it tells a big American story and features a big American hero, it enjoys some fine acting and is very accurate in searching into history and retrieving a moment and a story that continues to impact the American social and political fabric until today. And yet, 'Lincoln' did not turn to me into a cinema experience to enjoy. Actually something interesting happens with my relation with Steven Spielberg. The film I liked most is one of his first – the very little known Duel, a minimalistic masterpiece, followed by the wonderful Close Encounters
and E.T. I enjoyed the Indiana Jones and The Jurassic Park series for what they are meant to be – great entertainment. However my personal experience with his 'serious stuff' is mixed. While Saving Private Ryan is for me the best war film ever made, and Schindler's List is one of the best in the Holocaust genre, other stuff looks sometimes pretentious, sometimes too naive. As much as he tries to prove, Spielberg cannot do films about any subject, I mean he certainly can, but not all are that good.
Most of the action in 'Lincoln' takes place during the month of January of 1865. After four years of Civil War victory is quite close for the North, but the ending would have been meaningful only if the 13th Amendment making slavery illegal was adopted, making the reason of going to war and the temporary judicial war decisions part of the Constitution. Timing is critical, as the nation is tired and aspires for peace and recovery, and without the adoption of the amendment the end of the war may mean a compromise that leaves slavery in place. Abraham Lincoln will make all possible political maneuvering in order to have the amendment pass, in a Congress where he did not have the required majority. There is an interesting dilemma here about using 'unclean' political means in order to achieve a just cause and this is one of the principal themes. There are two problems here however in my opinion. One is that the political intrigues occupy a good half if not more of the film, and what we get on the screen is a painfully long succession of bearded gentlemen under top hats arguing and bribing for the good cause. I guess some of the American audiences are more familiar with the historical characters, but even so this is a long and repetitive succession of more of the same, and even the climax scene of the voting in the House misses some of the thrill I have expected. The other problem is the political speak which is attributed to almost all characters in the film. Maybe the script writers used fragments from speeches, I do not know, but there is too much rhetoric, too many historical sentences are being said by many characters (not only by Lincoln) and even in what should have been day-to-day situations. The overall result seemed to me tiring and emphatic. It is actually the non-political secondary threads that seemed more interesting – for example the agonizing decision of the parents Lincoln not allowing their elder son to fight in the war. This dilemma would have deserved a film by itself, a smaller but maybe better one.
Much was said and written (even a cover story in TIME Magazine) about Daniel Day-Lewis's impersonation of Lincoln. He is good but far in my opinion from his own creation in 'My Left Foot' or from Joaquin Phoenix's act in 'The Master' (best acting of the year in my view). The way he is filmed does not help, too many frames are looking towards catching his silhouette or making his profile look like the pictures which represent Lincoln in his time. Again, when he is human, when his words are not taken from speeches he looks and sounds better, but this is only for part of the time. Rhetoric prevailed in the building of this role, and Spielberg's scope looks like creating as many scenes to quote, but less to link them in a fluent story as he knows to do that well. I liked much more the supporting roles of Sally Field as a Lincoln's wife, or maybe the wife of all presidents or great men who sacrifice their personal lives for the greater causes, and of Tommy Lee Jones as the radical pro-abolitionist politician Thaddeus Stevens, a man whose life was dedicated to the fight against slavery, but who knows to make the right political move at the critical moment to achieve the legal confirmation of the dream, at a tough personal price with respect to his own ideals. In a movie where so many characters including the one that gives the name of the film are no more than rhetoric symbols, these two living heroes played by the two great actors make a refreshing difference.