Review: ‘Lincoln’ Is A Handsomely Shot, Immaculately Acted & Terribly Dull Historical Biopic

Review: 'Lincoln' Is A Handsomely Shot, Immaculately Acted & Terribly Dull Historical Biopic

Steven Spielberg directing a biopic on Abraham Lincoln, even one that concerns the President’s last four months in his second term, is a scenario that oozes with endless possibilities. This is, after all, a filmmaker who has cast his virtuosic eye on to past historical injustices like the Holocaust (“Schindler’s List“) and the aftermath of the Munich Olympics massacre (“Munich“), and who has always had a keen interest in the African American experience (“The Color Purple,” “Amistad“). Imagine what he could do with the actual Civil War! Unfortunately, as it turns out, he does very little. “Lincoln,” for all its technical accomplishment, fine performances and intricate script work, is something of a lifeless bore. It’s in desperate need and short supply of the very Spielberg-ian dazzle that it was assumed he would bring to the project.

“Lincoln” begins with a battle sequence, but instead of the gut-punching, no-holds-barred nature of “Saving Private Ryan” (or even “Munich,” which, like “Lincoln,” was penned by playwright Tony Kushner), it feels half formed and safe. The sequence is the recounting of a battle between black Union soldiers and white Confederate troops, but it’s interrupted by a conversation between one of the soldiers and Lincoln. The soldier is complaining about being paid $3 less than white soldiers, and Lincoln is thoughtfully listening and bestowing his wisdom upon the young soldier.

As Abraham Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis is nothing short of mesmerizing, even in this brief introduction, and in a way this sequence is evocative of the film as a whole – it’s overtly chatty, with little interest in anything beyond the dynamics of two people communicating with each other. The Civil War is raging, but Spielberg and Kushner are more worried about two dudes talking.

The story then shifts to the White House, and the movie’s concerns become more adroitly mapped out – Abraham Lincoln wants the South to surrender and the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution to be passed by the House of Representatives. How those two goals intermingle and conflict is a source of drama, but mostly this film is an endless series of scenes where white men bicker inside candlelit rooms about the fate of the nation and the foolhardiness of trying to get something like this passed. On one hand, this kind of restraint is admirable, showing a mostly stripped-down Spielberg narrowing his focus and jettisoning most of his tricks. But on the other, it’s something close to deathly, oftentimes dull and plodding. “Lincoln” is less a historical epic than an extremely lengthy, Civil War-set episode of “The West Wing.”

If there’s one thing that enlivens “Lincoln,” it’s the film’s supporting cast. Clearly, no actor would say no to a phone call from Steven Spielberg asking if they’d like to participate in an Abraham Lincoln movie, so even the smallest part is filled by either a big name movie star or a noticeable character actor, among them Lukas Haas, Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones (serving as the de facto emotional center for the movie), David Strathairn, Lee Pace, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Gregory Itzin, Jared Harris, Michael Stuhlbarg and Walton Goggins. The clear standouts, oddly enough, are a troop of morally nebulous political operatives played by Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and John Hawkes. They add some much-needed live wire electricity to the midsection of the movie, which is comprised mostly of montages where the three of them scramble around to secure enough votes for the amendment to pass.

Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is uncanny, giving off the sensation that this is the closest anyone alive today will ever get to seeing to the President walking around and talking to people. Day-Lewis inhabits the character fully, in his distinctive gait and posture (his back sometimes bending into a question-mark), his reedy voice (given the painstaking amount of historical research that went into the rest of the movie, it must be based in fact) and the more honest-feeling portrayal of his moral righteousness, which wasn’t as arrow-straight as most like to think it was. Lincoln, in this movie at least, was a conflicted, often tortured man, who knew what had to be done and was willing to bend certain rules and obligations to achieve his desired outcome.

If Lincoln has a foil, it’s not the Democrats who wanted to callously shoot down the Amendment, but rather his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), a woman still mourning the loss of their young son and whose mental instability was the source of much speculation and gossip. She is the only one who can stand up to the great and powerful President and Field does so in a way that feels very real and emotionally sound. Their relationship was not a warm one; Lincoln was brittle and intermittently callous, and any romance that the two might have had seems to have seeped into the earth, like so much Union and Confederate blood. When Mary threatens Lincoln about sending their son Robert (Levitt) off to fight in the war effort, it’s the closest Lincoln comes to being genuinely scared.

But for all of its finely calibrated performances (seriously, Spader is amazing), for all of its visual splendor (longtime Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski makes sure even candles throw off fat lens flares), “Lincoln” remains remote, hermetic, bloodless and antiqued. At 150 minutes, it’s far too long, especially when the suspense-starved climax concerns the ratification of votes in a sequence so painstakingly detailed that it feels like it’s happening in real time. Spielberg even shies away, in the film’s closing moments, from explicitly depicting the assassination, which, aside from being an opportunity for actual thrills in the film, would have been a suitable emotional climax. Not only were several of the movie’s major characters involved in the assassination plot (it was a multi-pronged affair and involved other attempts on lives of the cabinet), Lincoln drove through throngs of people, enraptured in celebratory glee, following the passing of the Amendment. There’s something deeply poetic about the man making his way through a changed nation to meet his demise. But such poetry is nowhere to be found in “Lincoln.” [C]

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Comments

George

Much too much emphasis on the whole 13th amendment thing but absolutely nothing on what makes Presidents Day such a great day for sales.
But seriously…. if you want to be bored out of your wits, this movie will make you want to hang yourself.

ADAK

sorry…..the correct spelling below is "cutesy"

ADAK

I finally went out and saw this movie today. I felt like I was at the Meet Mr. Lincoln robot show on Main Street in Disneyland. With everybody else acting kind of REAL in this movie, we all had to come to reverential HALTs…..go no further…Lincoln is about to utter something for The Ages….and then all the most perfect silhouetted profiles of Lincoln instantly appeared throughout the movie…actors backed away…..lighting pinpointed on Lincoln…..we all stood back to listen in as these cinematic mini shrines dotted the entire film…. I got worn out going down on my knees and genuflecting so often…. I felt manipulated.

This is NO different than the way cinema has treated Lincoln for decades….. Do we understand more of Lincoln the man because of this movie? Hell no. We however do sort of understand some of the other dodgier characters a lot better though and this is what is so unfortunate about the movie though it was done in Spielberg cutsie fashion.

For crying out loud, this was a movie about Lincoln and we are no better off concerning insights into Lincoln then we were before going on this sloooooooooooooow drum roll of a movie that brought us nowhere good but only to hangable photo scenes as if this were an art gallery instead of a movie. Spielberg played fast and furious with historical facts making his "pretty film".

No wonder the Golden Globes ignored this plastic movie.

In "Flight" at least we got a developed character and I hope Denzel Washington is NOT ignored by the Oscars. That was acting…THAT was character development….. Compare Meet Mr. Lincoln and "Flight" and then tell me what movie was compelling beyond any doubt and who should win the Oscar for Best Actor!

Dream on all the rest of you if you thought this was Spielberg's greatest ouvre …it wasn't. Just another concocted twist on historical facts to make it easy on the digestive tract. See "Flight" and get into the brain of somebody with a big problem…. Lincoln had of course cosmic problems from home to Nation but one never "felt" a bit of it.

Spielberg needs to take a vacation and get serious about his craft since that's all it is right now…craft not art.

We got Disneyland's Meet Mr. Lincoln on Main Street instead. What an opportunity missed.

Mike Philadelphia PA

To each is own.Movies are for ENTERTAINMENT and I was far from entertained watching this movie.The acting was good but the script was lacking variety and action.The movie is about slavery,The Union and Lincoln's life but I didn't see any slaves in the movie for crying out loud.Through out the whole movie it's just people talking about the same ol thing over and over again.Speilberg could have added more depth to the film to keep the viewer interested,excited and waiting for what will happen next.He could added more depth to the film by showing what happened before The Civil War.Like a build up from the beggining to the climax (end) of the film which was the war,the passing of the 13th amendment and Lincolns death.Just because the movie was filmed well with good actors doesn't make it a great film.The script (story) is always important.

John

I'm afraid to say that people who think this movie is a cinematic gem have lost the ability to judge a movie. The lame way out is to blast haters of this movie as being fans of Sandler or Transformers or some other Hollywood blockbuster. If you don't see what is wrong with this movie then slap yourself across the face and watch it again because the only thing you've enjoyed last time round is your nap.

Robert

People who walk out of a film like this because it is "boring" might consider another type of movie next time. I'm sure Adam Sandler has something new right around the corner. In any case, this film is what it is, and it is what it was meant to be . Superb film adaptation of a specific part of the book Team of Rivals. If you want a war movie, go to a war movie. News flash, this part of history was a bunch of white guys sitting around deciding the fate of the black population. If you want something different try Tyler Perry.

Andy

And, not to put a finer point on it, but those of you calling Spielberg's exclusion of the assassination "pussing out" I strongly disagree. Had Spielberg choosen to include the assassination of Lincoln, he would have had an insurmountable task in avoiding a very cliche and tacky scene. I believe that Spielberg made the choice (and rightly so) out of respect for Lincoln, for his audience and for his own mastery as a film maker. The way Spielberg handled the assassination was not only tasteful and unique, but more deep and moving than any cliche, traditional scene could have been. And again, the fact that you were bored and put off by the exclusion of violence at every other line is a testament to the poor condition of our nation's population. Real history is not the history of battles and wars. Yes these exist, but the meat of history, its heart and soul is not in the events but in the people. That is where real drama, intrigue and interest can be found. A facade of history supported by "high-points" of Hollywood violence does not make a good film. A unique, insightful, accurate look at the man behind one of our nation's best and worst eras, done in such a masterful way does. And that is exactly what Spielberg accomplished.

Andy

To those of you calling Lincoln "dull":
Shame on you. You have bought into the lamentable scourge of Hollywood. You who cannot sit through a movie if it does not consistently revert back to fire, explosion and death. You who are incapable of understanding the depth of Spielberg and Lewis's portrayal of Lincoln. You who are uninterested in the "chatting" of a few historical characters. Shame on you. You who watch movies intent on being thrilled, sitting on the edge of your seat during the action and then dozing off through the meat of the plot. You who cannot fathom the meaning of Lincoln's words and the significance of what is unfolding on the screeen before you. You who do not care for history or for meaning or for depth, but only care for entertainment. Shame on you.
In the 21st century we have become a society in decay, not only in terms of power and morality, but in terms of intellect. We no longer thirst for knowledge, for meaning, for passion but for gore, violence and adrenaline. We have replaced our quest for new perceptions and changes in our thinking for empty entertainment. Our culture of instant gratification and constant movement is no longer capable of understanding or valuing a true piece of historical artistry. Spielberg paints a picture of Abraham Lincoln unlike any other before. The movie is not about the Civil War, it is not about fighting or dying or victory or defeat, it isn't even about the 13th Amendment, or slavery or racial equality. The movie is about Lincoln. His character, his motivations, his story; hence the title. Spielberg didn't want to entertain you with fictional intrigue and Hollywood action, he wanted to show you President Lincoln in a way you have never seen before. And in this regard, Spielberg and Daniel Day Lewis succeeded immensely. This film is an indepth evaluation of the thoughts, actions and inner conflicts of one of our greatest Presidents of all time. Spielbergy gives us a glimpse of the deeper workings of Lincoln's mind. This is what real history is, an exploration of thought, decisions, a search for truth and meaning. Lincoln's controversy about the legality of his actions versus the morality of his actions is an insightful analysis of the thougths and conflicts of one of the wisest Presidents we have ever, or will ever see. To those who were "bored": shame on you. You can only be fulfilled by action and adventure and fast-paced fiction. You have become addicted to a terrible drug. You have lost all sense of intellect, of thought and of meaning. Again I say, shame on you.

Katie

I usually love spielberg movies, but I agree this one was super boring. My husband and I literally walked out because we were so tired of it. I also agree that the movie sould have been called "the 13th amendment." the cinematography and costumes were nice, but the whole movie was SO overdone. I agree with whoever said Mary Todd looked too old and like Lincoln's mother. I hate to say it but I was sick of Day-Lewis too. Lincoln's character was so overdone it was just annoying. We all already know Abe Lincoln's character/personality. You don't have to spend 1.5 hours developing it. There is a point where a someone says of Lincoln, "not another story!!" and that is seriously how i felt too. Just shut up and get on with it. "if this movie keeps rambling, i am out of here." And unfortunately it didnt get any better. Glad I didn't stay for the end. The amendment passes and Lincoln dies. Big surprise. I'm glad we went on half-price movie night.

JAB

No more Red Bull & 10 Hour Energy B-12 shots for you.
"Lincoln" is never dull (unlike the 2nd half of "Looper"). I'm a real wonk for pacing & this is supremely well paced.
The short time frame of the movie allows for it to be more intimate than a longer one would've allowed, but it is still monumental in tone. The fate of the nation hangs in the balance.
Daniel Day-Lewis performance reminds me of Heath Ledger's work as "The Joker" because the humongous hype & praise heaped upon it still does not prepare you for it. (He does not give the only great performance in it. Every actor in this prodigous cast is either at the top of their game or very close to it.) It is one of Spielberg's top five films he's ever made.

Look 2 the sky

Yes the movie is well crafted but it is boring in many places. This movie , to me , should have been titled The Passing of the 13th!!!. Lincoln was more of a side note in this film. Spielberg by showing less (Civil war battle scenes and Lincolns death are nowhere to be found) severly narrows the films scope and impact. Even , my mother whose idea of an action film is My Dinner With Andre wanted to leave 1 hour into this boring thing. The night before we went to see Sam Mendes Skyfall. Wow, what a difference. American History was never this dull. Not even in my high school classes.

Chris

Lincoln was a pretty good movie, but very slow at some points. It felt like DDL was giving a speech/story in every other scene which don't get me wrong I loved every word that came out of his mouth. It just didn't really have a good pace to it. Just felt like there would be a court scene then a story/speech and it just did that for 150 minutes. DDL is brilliant as he always is I just thought that everyone else besides Tommy Lee Jones & Sally Fields was just average. I thought that Her and DDL were really good together. But overall it was just too slow for me I would give it a 7.2/10 though. Also SS really pussed out when he didnt show the assassination.

Only Me

Hmmm.Does it says that President Lincoln his half black?? Just asking.. I was going to watch it today, but toooo many response saying it's boring.

ToddersonL

I agree with this review. Few seem to have the courage to say something against a Spielberg film. In general, his films are excellent. But not this one. Super boring. The best thing about it was Tommy Lee Jones. The movie should have been about Thaddeus Stevens, not Lincoln. I also liked the cinematography, costumes , sets and that it was made to be as authentic as possible. I will also add that I do not think Daniel Day Lewis did a good job. Maybe he was authentic and he looked the part, but he mumbled his words. I only heard maybe half of what he said. He was always looking down and I did not care about him or his wife (Sally Field) all that much. I cared deeply about the Tommy Lee Jones character. Maybe the mumbling and looking down was authentic to the real Lincoln, and if this is the case, then I would simply say that Lincoln did not have the presence to carry a movie. He should have been the supporting character in a movie about Thaddeus Stevens.

VCQ

One of the most boring, dull movies I have seen in a while! And, I love the movies as well as appreciate spielberg's genius but I was really, really bored to death that I thought War Horse fared better!!!

RG

Raymond Massey will always be the perfect "good guy" Lincoln. The problem is that the REAL Lincoln knew before he became president that the country was headed for war, and did nothing to stop it. At Fort Sumter they were told NOT to evacuate. Lincoln wanted a war that would tear the country apart and kill hundreds of thousands of Americans. Recent questions about him being overtly gay to the point of anally raping pages in the white house (nothing boring there) makes me think this guy was not what the insipid lackeys who write history books and make movies want us to think. Evil is good at any cost. Spend a night in Gettysburg. In the silence try to hear the screams of the dead and wounded. Kids with their arms and legs and jaws blown off. Forget about veterans benefits back then. Their suffering and pain and agony was a high price to free African slaves who would be freed anyway with the invention of the tractor 20 years later. Choose your blood drenched heroes carefully.

AE

Do we really need 'dazzle' to stay interested? I'd be happy simply with authentic depiction of humanity in the throes of life.

Brandon

I thoroughly disagree with this review.

This review reads like it was written by a twelve year old who was disappointed with the lack of explosions.

Tobias Bowman

A disappointing and uncharacteristic miss with this review; short-sighted, superficial, and yearning spectacle. If you want to watch a war film there are plenty out there. The film is a biopic with potentially the greatest film actor of all time in the lead role. [I am yet to see the film – which I appreciate weakens my opinion] however it sounds as if Spielberg might have developed from his blind, subjective sentimentality with which he treated many of the films you referenced. Not all cinema is popcorn crunching spectacle and "two dudes talking" can be pretty engaging [ref: Capote], especially within a biopic. The greatest biopics do not just describe what an individual did, they capture their essence. Otherwise you end up with 'Public Enemies' – did that get an A by any chance?

SteveLA

Finally! A review that tells it like it is!

This movie is misguided and dull, with about 10 preachy speeches too many. (I nodded off for a few moments during one of them.) All of the action, save for the lazy opening battlefield scene takes place off screen. And, like in a bad play, the characters are always talking about important expositional things that happened in the past instead of using the film medium to show it: "Remember when Willie died, father?" "This is like that time three years ago when you threatened to put me in the Mad House!" "I will write nothing more important in my life than last year's Emancipation Proclamation, which I won't bother to tell you about in detail" and the Gettysburg Address is recited by two black soldiers to Lincoln.

Characters come and go without having a proper introduction or explanation to us who they are or why they matter. Curiously, in the middle of the movie, Spielberg starts using lower thirds to explain who a few people are (like he did in "Amistad"), then for no apparent reason stops doing it. I heard a fellow audience member mutter: "Well why didn't he do this earlier? I would have liked to have know who all those other people were!" Indeed.

Drew is right…Spader is totally amazing (when did he suddenly turned into this great character actor?) His scenes are great because his has what the rest of the movie lacks: ENERGY. JGL is only in a few overwrought scenes despite the fact that he is billed third, then disappears entirely from the plot and film. And I don't care how great she is, Sally Field is 20 YEARS TOO OLD to play Mary Lincoln, who was in her 40s when all this was going on. (In fact, she's three years OLDER than Mary Lincoln was when she died 17 YEARS after the events of this movie!) It doesn't help that Abe never embraces or kisses her, so she ends up looking like his MOTHER, not his wife. God forbid that Spielberg show any real passion between a man and woman, sexual or otherwise, in any of his films.

I'm glad I saw it for the set design, the costumes and the chance to watch DDL's historic and perfect acting performance, but "Lincoln" is truly boring, has almost no black actors in the cast despite the fact that it's all about freeing the slaves (I counted only five) and, as this reviewer pointed out, there's no proper cathartic ending. Great. The ONE TIME I'm actually excited for a button-pusing emotional Hollywood historical epic from Spielberg, he goes all soft and indie on us. Go figure…

The fact that most critics are falling over themselves is suspicious to me. I truly think they are afraid to give Spielberg any bad review, fearful that public opinion will turn on them. Well, to put it into perspective, most critics also gave Indiana Jones 4 outstanding notices and we all know what a piece of utter sh*t that movie was.

Apologies if you liked it. I know it's hard to admit that the Emperor has no clothes, but he's naked as a jaybird, folks! What a stinker!!!

Catherine

Christopher Bell,
I presume you're referring to me….
'namedropping rt'
Yeah, you know, names like AO Scott, New York Times, Village Voice (who rarely gives Spielberg a rave), Salon, Slate, Stephanie Zacharek, LA Weekly etc…
And then nine knucklehead reviews from someone named Smithie Coley or Dustin Something or other…..
Well, i know which consensus has more credibility to me.
And the 'boring' comments just make reviews like the one above all the more
Knuckleheaded.
Its not about some blind love for Spielberg, but about the kind of hipsterish rejection of all things mainstream or popular or aclaimed or whatever.
Its the same mindset of people who revel in hating The Beatles. Its phony and predictable.

Tim H.

Saw it in limited release. Pretty fucking dull. I know that's hard for the Spielbergos to believe, but it's patently true.

LOL

amazing review, 2 much talkin ruins movies, lol i don't care about some old white dudes talkin i want sum action!!! will smiths partner/dad shoulda shot that other beardy guy lol spielberg should get back to making star wars movies right guys

mac

I actually agree with the review. It is talky. And DULL. I was expecting the assassination to be the dramatic highlight but instead it was presented almost like an afterthought, and tacked on as if they felt rushed because the movie is getting too long. And they were right.

Jordan

Yawn… another younger yuppie critic who's trying to get attention by giving a Spielberg film hate.

BEN

most annoying part of indiewire – playlist sucks. Hey, are you really critic?

JD V

Wow…I mean. Wow.

-"…are more concerned with two dudes talking"

-West Wing comparisons

-Seems to have considerable knowledge of the assassination plot and events following the Amendment, but unaware of Lincoln's famously high-pitched voice

-Thinks that showing Lincoln's assassination would have provided "much-needed thrills". ("thrills"? What do you want, the PEARL HARBOR-style take on American history?)

Ah well, at least we're spared any cheap shots at War Horse or complaints about what a terrible composer John Williams is.

An OBjective Viewer

With no horse in this race: lol at the spielberg fanboys in this comments section. Pretty damn transparent

Gustavo

What is it with The Playlist and the obvious need to smack-down every Spielberg film in existence?

Excuse me if I take your opinions with a HUGE grain of salt. You guys are like Jeffrey Wells, the web's most infamous Spielberg hater.

ben

Is this review originally written by Rex Reed? Sucker.

Brian

I agree almost 100% with everything in this review

Travis

I said much the same. Recognizing how beautiful and well-acted it is, as well as a superb handling of Lincoln's biggest achievement as President, I couldn't help but feel it was extremely slow and ponderous. I got bored far too often.

JWB

One of the most dunderheaded reviews I've ever read.
(Also, as has been stated many times 'round here, you fools are in desperate need of a copy editor.)

kitcon

I was a bit less blown away by DDL's performance but a bit kinder towards the film as a whole.

Marko

So what you're saying, is that it's no Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

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