Skip to main content

I am the President of the United States of America, clothed in immense power! You will procure me those votes!


Lincoln
(2012)

Steven Spielberg’s latest prestige picture appeared to be Oscar frontrunner for a while; whether it can still take Best Picture remains to be seen, but it represents, possibly, the ultimate Oscar bait.

As such, it displays both the best and worst traits of “worthy” films. At its best, it is commendably literate, probably more so than any film in the director’s back catalogue. I was continually impressed with the screenplay’s refusal to cut any slack to the viewer whose attention may have lapsed for a moment or two. At its worst, however, it is victim to the kind of over-egged sentiment and bludgeoning, “This is the message” approach that has marred Spielberg’s previous forays into the world of “serious” filmmaking.


Accordingly, I don’t really feel this was such a departure for the 'Berg. I’ve seen reviews that claim it was a massive step forward in his maturity as a filmmaker, but it is riddled with the same unevenness that diminishes any attempt he has made to tackle weighty or intellectually rigorous ideas. Because, essentially, his is a populist approach; that is the only way he knows to deliver films, whether that is appropriate to the content or not. Perfect for what he does best (or did best, since he seems more concerned with his legacy now than having fun), but for some of the hot button moments from history?

So, unfortunately, while there was much that I liked about Lincoln, its the problems with it that stand out. John Williams' overbearing score, in particular, swells almost every scene with a self-conscious combination of importance, pride and sentiment that it doesn't need and which ultimately damage the less grandiose impulses of the material.


The lip service played to the black characters on the periphery of the events becomes painful after a while; each one wisely imparting some piece of knowledge or shoehorned into delivering an obvious platitude at an (in-) appropriate moment. The director was clearly uncomfortable, understandably, with trying to tackle the subject of abolition, when the decision-making was exclusively the providence of white Americans. But his solution feels merely patronising. It is interesting to note that, at the outset, Spielberg’s Lincoln project was to have concentrated on the relationship between the President and Frederick Douglass, the African American abolitionist movement leader and former slave.  Perhaps if this character had been retained, to whatever extent, the film would have found the balance it was seeking.


The problems with Lincoln lead to the conclusion that Spielberg was the wrong man for the job (commonly the case when he has sought out high-minded historical subject matter); he lays it on too thick. The director assumes we will be rapt when we are asked to sit in awe of one of Lincoln's speeches, but they quickly resemble so much rhetoric (because, really, they are). There's also a tendency for characters to feed statements of the bleeding obvious to Lincoln (at one point Jared Harris' Ulysses S Grant says something to the effect of "Now you've led us through this war you can carry on and lead this country"; I'd have hoiked in my popcorn if I'd had any). It's a shame, as the main thrust of the politicking is detailed and engrossing. As a result, where the script becomes clumsy it feels all-the-more glaring.


Nevertheless, the director made many a number of wise choices for his long in development project, not least reducing the premise from a fully-fledged biopic to a depiction of the President’s struggle to pass the Thirteenth Amendment; it’s this that makes the choice to end the film with news of the President’s assassination ill-fitting (as Samuel L Jackson has observed). It represents the wrong kind of closure but the kind of choice Spielberg would be unable to resist. If he can’t tell the whole story, and least he can show how it ends.


I’m ill-equipped to comment on the historical accuracy of events, but I enjoyed the ethical debate evoked over Lincoln’s choices; do the ends justify the means? And, if they do, at what cost? If the film, understandably, concludes that Lincoln was right to manipulate and bribe to achieve abolition, what example is this for any future government that claims they answer to a higher authority or ideal over the constraints of the law?

But the problem here is not that the question isn’t given enough consideration, it’s that Spielbeg’s view of Lincoln is so beatific that you can never be in any doubt as to the answer. Lip service is paid to the question of the extent of Lincoln’s personal belief in equality, during a conversation with his maid, but it is not a very well written or executed scene. The politician’s noncommittal response is believable, but character and dialogue has the awkward tone of “we need to address this point”.


Where Spielberg’s achievement is unqualified is the casting. He elicits fine performances all-round. Daniel Day Lewis is superb; authoritative yet warm, and at his most engaging when delivering Lincoln's frequent and long-winded (but funny) anecdotes. Tommy Lee Jones relishes his best role in ages as staunch abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (although, when he takes his wig off at the end I did half wonder if he was going to be revealed as an ET who had engineered the amendment). James Spader makes the most of a gift of a scene-stealing part.


Aware of the burden of wall-to-wall verbiage, Spielberg litters his film with supporting players (much as Oliver Stone did with JFK); the result is that barely a scene goes by without a recognisable face appearing in even a very minor role. Everyone from Hal Hobrook and Lee Pace to Michael Stuhlbarg and Bruce McGill make strong impressions. Some of the thespians given a chance to chew off a bit more meat include David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward and Sally Field, who acquits herself well as Lincoln’s troubled wife. However, it’s debatable whether Spielberg unfurls his canvas too widely by including Lincoln’s domestic tribulations. At times, the way topics are broached through Mary Todd and, especially, his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in a rate case of being able to do little with a one-note character) comes dangerously close to being trite.


The latter represents Spielberg’s way in to addressing the war; the son who wishes to be able to hold his head up in years to come and say he did his bit held back by a concerned father (slightly different in emphasis to more recent accusations of presidential draft-dodging, but still pertinent). But, again, the director’s approach to this (Robert is aghast at the sight of a pit filled with severed limbs) takes a hammer to crack a nut. In another’s hands the same scene, same entire script even, might have been more consistently successful, shorn of the urge to embolden every emotional punctuation mark. The director is far more successful when he just shows, rather than leads you by the nose; the opening battle sequence is suitably horrific, lingering in the mind long after the film has shifted attention to cloistered deal-making.


Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised. Tony Kushner, the playwright who adapted (or, at least, was inspired by) Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, previously furnished Spielberg with the screenplay for Munich. It’s another film that strives for insight and nuance but muddles exploring a subject with requiring its characters to address the same head-on. This is particularly ironic with Lincoln, as so much of the dialogue is both gloriously precise in its florid periodicity and frequently uproariously funny. The result is an uneasy co-mingling of the inspired and the inane.

There’s little to say about the technical credits; regular editor Michael Kahn works seamlessly and unobtrusively while Janus Kaminski is, in this case at least, the right director of photography for job, suffusing the frame with muted browns.


It’s a shame that, for all its sterling qualities, Lincoln is prone to the kind of sentimentalising and veneration of its subject matter that diminished the likes of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. With great subject matter comes great responsibility, and I can’t help but conclude that, for his earnestness and desire to do right by his material, Spielberg’s is the wrong sensibility to explore the salient points and themes of significant episodes in history.

***1/2

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .