Dir. Steven Spielberg
We all remember the iconic Spielberg moments; cinematic creations that struck the heart of the audience – full of adventure, innovation and storytelling in its purest form. Whether it was the floating silhouette of E.T. on the front of a bicycle creeping across the face of a brilliant moon, or the masterful track-and-zoom on Brody’s helpless face as he realises the shark’s approach in Jaws, or even the simplicity of ripples in a glass of water accompanied by the sounds of a distant, huge beast approaching the tour-cars in Jurassic Park, these moments were enchanting and a reminder of the immediacy and visceral power of the film medium itself. No such moments grace Lincoln. It is a film which weighs in at over two and a half hours and seems intent on testing the audience’s engagement to eventual breaking point.
Lincoln tells the story of America’s most beloved President and his attempt to pass the controversial 13th Amendment, an addition to the Constitution that allows black people the same legal rights as whites. Spielberg documents Lincoln’s struggle to pass the bill and his hopes that its success will see an end to the brutal civil war currently raging between the anti-slave North and the pro-slave South. It does not come as a surprise therefore that Lincoln uses the language of deeply complex and technical political process; what is a surprise is just how inaccessible this lexis makes the narrative, and how much genuine emotion is lost in the sea of tedious political jargon.
This is ‘serious’ Spielberg in his most preachy mode. I cannot recall a film that he has made which makes less effort to be entertaining. For the majority of the picture the script sounds like a talking textbook, with characters explaining their motivations and political allegiance in robotic, emotionless fashion (‘I am a Democrat sir, and you are a Republican! We are opposed on the following issues…’). With nearly every new character that is introduced, Spielberg gives a list of facts in on-screen text: their full name, the date of when the recreated footage was supposed to have taken place and the setting where the action is situated. This incessant supply of irrelevant and mostly trivial facts serves to break up the narrative, and give it the feel of a History Channel documentary (perhaps this is the medium where‘Lincoln would have flourished) rather than the latest Hollywood awards contender. Spielberg apparently spent 12 years in prep for this film – this period of stagnation has led to a stark, dulled, fact-book approach which makes little attempt to hold dramatic interest.
In terms of aesthetic, the director achieves nothing interesting or dynamic. The images move like the story: slow, plodding and pernickety in construction. Spielberg deliberately chose the exact wallpaper that Lincoln had in his actual inaugural office. Why? In this narrative’s case, the devil is demonstrably not in the detail.
The faults of the narrative are not the responsibility of the cast. Daniel Day-Lewis, as if by design, directly contradicts his previous roles – specifically that of Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting in Scorcese’s Gangs of New York. Bill is a blood-thirsty gangland figure who directly opposes Lincoln’s worldview and politics. It is to Lewis’ credit that he can play two diametrically opposed personas within the space of ten years and have the audience completely invest in his performance each time. Spielberg’s adulation of Lincoln hinders the drama however, as he is almost shown to do no wrong. Indeed, there are numerous pious and Christ-like references littered throughout the film in relation to Honest Abe himself: he spins verbose ‘parables’ to eagerly listening disciples; he has the demeanour of a tired and tortured soul; he is labelled the ‘purest man America has ever known’. Lewis even strikes a crucifix pose in the film’s final fading shot, after Lincoln ‘sacrifices’ himself as it were (to the Judas of John Wilkes Booth) for his people in abolishing slavery. I was constantly wary of this prophetic elevation, perhaps because its quasi-mystical nature seems ill-at-ease with the rest of the film’s fiercely factual approach.
Perhaps my biggest problem with Lincoln is its approach to tackling the issue of slavery. Another serendipitous release that tackles a similar subject, Django Unchained, deals with it (somewhat surprisingly) in more appropriate fashion. Tarantino accurately portrays the horror of the grotesque and unthinkable violence undeniably present in slave era America by showing that grotesque and unthinkable violence. Spielberg (who additionally attempts to explore the American Civil War, a notoriously bloody and violent conflict) merely mentions the atrocities in passing, and this diminished impact is suffered on the audience. So much of the ‘action’ takes place around grand, dusty tables where old white men discuss the fate of millions. The audience is so far removed from the reality of slavery and the Civil War that the eventual emotion produced is apathy – for an audience to be allowed not to care in a film that tackles subject matter of this magnitude is reprehensible.
Lincoln seems to me to be an overtly indulgent picture. Spielberg clearly has a vested interest in the facts and figures of the time to an almost obsessive degree. Simply reconstructing and listing these events does not constitute gripping cinema. But the film has garnered a slew of Oscar nominations – because of its sturdy performances, because of its heavy subject matter, because of Spielberg-stalwart John Williams’ patriotic score, and because of the directorial royalty who attaches his name to the production. Lincoln is an unambitious pet-project on a multi-million dollar scale; a film as stilted and about as interesting as your average history lesson. I sincerely hope (inevitably in vain) that it does not win awards.