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]