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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

One day you will speak and the jungle will listen.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)
(SPOILERS) The unloved and neglected Jungle Book movie that wasn't Disney’s, Jungle Book: Origins was originally pegged for a 2016 release, before being pushed to last year, then this, and then offloaded by Warner Bros onto Netflix. During which time the title changed to Mowgli: Tales from the Jungle Book, then Mowgli, and finally Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The assumption is usually that the loser out of vying projects – and going from competing with a near $1bn grossing box office titan to effectively straight-to-video is the definition of a loser – is by its nature inferior, but Andy Serkis' movie is a much more interesting, nuanced affair than the Disney flick, which tried to serve too many masters and floundered with a finale that saw Mowgli celebrated for scorching the jungle. And yes, it’s darker too. But not grimdarker.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

A steed is not praised for its might, but for its thoroughbred qualities.

The Avengers Season 3 Ranked - Worst to Best
Season Three is where The Avengers settles into its best-known form – okay, The Grandeur that was Rome aside, there’s nothing really pushing it towards the eccentric heights it would reach in the Rigg era – in no small part due to the permanent partnering of Honor Blackman with Patrick Macnee. It may not be as polished as the subsequent incarnations, but it has the appeal of actively exploring its boundaries, and probably edges out Season Five in the rankings, which rather started to believe its own hype.

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom (2018)
(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

A machine planet, sending a machine to Earth, looking for its creator. It’s absolutely incredible.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
(SPOILERS) Most of the criticisms levelled at Star Trek: The Motion Picture are legitimate. It puts spectacle above plot, one that’s so derivative it might be classed as the clichéd Star Trek plot. It’s bloated and slow moving. For every superior redesign of the original series’ visuals and concepts, there’s an inferior example. But… it’s also endlessly fascinating. It stands alone among the big screen chapters of series as an attempted reimagining of the TV show as a grand adult, serious-minded “experience”, taking its cues more from 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Wars or even Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the success of which got The Motion Picture (TMP) a green light, execs sufficiently convinced that Lucas’ hit wasn’t a one-off). It’s a film (a motion picture, not a mere movie) that recognises the passage of time (albeit clumsily at points) and gives a firm sense of space and place to its characters universe. It’s hugely flawed, but it bot…