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