Characterized by refreshing restraint, its passionate convictions and patience, if Steven Spielberg’s worst tendencies are his propensity for the sentimental and overwrought (as evinced recently in much of “War Horse”), his latest, “Lincoln,” thankfully possesses almost none of those unfortunate traits. However, as a two hour procedural about the ratification of an amendment in the House Of Representatives (does anything sound more appealing as a premise to you?), "Lincoln" is also not exactly the most engaging nor well-paced picture either.
Pitched somewhere between the staid nature of “Amistad,” “Schindler's List,” and the far less treacly and inspiring latter half of “War Horse,” Spielberg himself unveiled an “unfinished” screening of “Lincoln” at the New York Film Festival this evening, describing it as a "privilege" to go on this journey in exploring the politician's legacy. But to the untrained eye, it would be difficult to discern what exactly was incomplete other than a minutely-detailed framework that could use a much tighter pace and rhythm.
Marked by a forceful, but nicely muted performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th President of the United States, perhaps the film’s greatest asset is the consummate scene stealer Tommy Lee Jones as Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens. A fervent abolitionist, while Stevens and Lincoln are ostensibly on the same side of aiming to end slavery, their methods are thoroughly different; Stevens charging ahead while Lincoln offering the composure of a cool tactician.
Beginning in the fall of 1864, in the midst of Lincoln’s second term as President, while the bloody Civil War is still raging, it looks like the war has an end in sight. However, Lincoln’s primary concern before the battle closes is abolishing slavery beyond the Emancipation Proclamation (an executive order only good during war time) and delivering a lasting and honorable freedom.
Adapted by Tony Kushner (who penned Spielberg’s last great film “Munich”) and based on the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” the film centers on the quiet genius of the nation’s leader who has to reconcile conflicting personalities, warring political factions and a treacherous political climate on the rocky path to abolition and victory in the U.S. Civil War.
And so while not attempting to become an overreaching greatest hits biopic, “Lincoln” zeroes in on these last few months before the 13th Amendment was ratified with Fincher-like precision and commitment. As such, “Lincoln” is heavy on the politics, the dramatic speeches and the charged atmospheres of opposing forces in the House of Representatives to a fault. But at times, this procedural nature of the film — Lincoln and his Secretary of State worrying about the 20 votes they need to uphold the proposed alteration of the law — can be tedious and trying. Surprisingly though, “Lincoln” does have a hearty sense of humor, and Kushner cracks out some witty bon mots, but perhaps in the editing process the film can be tightened to discard its lullingly dull agendum moments and focus on the moments that engage.
Co-starring a myriad of supporting actors in its ensemble — Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s son Robert who must fight in the war despite his parents wishes, Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, Lee Pace as former Mayor of New York City Fernando Wood, Jackie Earle Haley as Vice President of the Confederate States of America Alexander H. Stephens, and various congressman, senators, low-level operatives and politicians played by Walton Goggins, Bruce McGill, Wayne Duvall, Michael Stuhlbarg, James Spader, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook and more — all of these actors do fine work, but none get a lot of screen time to really resonate. Faring far better is Sally Field as Lincoln’s dutiful, but intractable wife Mary Todd Lincoln and David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward (David Warshofsky, Tim Blake Nelson, David Oyelowo and Adam Driver also have small parts and cameos). Gloria Reuben plays Elizabeth Keckley, a civic activist and confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, but her role unfortunately is summed up as the token African-American figure used to represent the painful emotional struggle while watching the House bicker and squabble.
Painted in a musty brown and blue, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński does a commendable job of making an inherently unattractive palette look borderline beautiful, especially when dealing with the tonalities of chiaroscuro, but a mostly ugly palette it ultimately is. Thankfully, John Williams' score, easily the worst offender in Spielberg’s “War Horse,” is, like the picture, solemn, well-controlled and moving with a dignified air of grace.
While admirable in its unwavering and committed portrait of an inherently mostly undramatic subject (the approbation of a constitutional amendment, albeit perhaps the most important one in history), ultimately, “Lincoln” reads, at least right now, like a prosaic, semi-compelling history lesson; the type teachers showed to you in school when they saw your eyes glazing over prerequisite text (one you need to know, but not one you're likely going to seek out on your own). With 10 Best Picture nominations available, it seems “Lincoln” should easily procure one of the ten slots, but it would be a surprise to see the film become a threat beyond the actors. Even then Daniel Day-Lewis is perhaps a little too subtle and in-the-pocket for a win, and if there’s a stand-out, it’s likely Tommy Lee Jones who should be a sure-fire nominee in the Best Supporting category. “Lincoln” isn’t all slow and dull. It has occasional sparks, some tremendous actors doing estimable work, and its “climax” is perhaps the most dynamic and thrilling representation of a body of people voting on any law in the history of film. But it’s also, at least in this “unfinished” form, not especially remarkable, enjoyable or wholly compelling. “Lincoln” has its moments and is replete with talent, but in its current state, it could use a lot more finessing before it's delivered to the screen in full. The audience, however, generally had a favorable response to the picture, so it will be interesting to see what, if any, changes and tweaks are made.
"Lincoln" opens in limited release on Friday, November 9, and then expands nationwide on November 16.