Sunday, December 30, 2012

'Lincoln' is good because and despite Spielberg


Steven Spielberg is the most famous director of my lifetime. It's the one guy most people will think of when you ask them to name a film director. He has been hugely influential in shaping the cinematic landscape as we know it and has made great films in the process. The great Spielberg films were made before I was born. Schindler's List and Jurassic Park came out when I was one year old. Every Spielberg movie I've seen on the big screen has been a disappointment. For me, there's always been two Spielbergs: the great one from my living room and the not-so-great one from the movie theaters. 

Abraham Lincoln is such a revered historical figure that I was expecting this film to be a disaster. A depiction of Lincoln as a political Jesus working hard to abolish slavery while the democrats disapprove selfishly and the slaves look at him starry-eyed. Thankfully, there's little of that to be found in Lincoln, which is without a doubt Spielberg's best film in almost two decades. Almost every one of the traits that had made Spielberg into such a boring director are gone and the ones that remain can be easily forgiven in an otherwise very good film.

The film depicts the last few months of Lincoln's life, as he aggressively seeks for the passing of the 13th Amendment before the Civil War is over. Most of the movie is devoted to the political machinations necessary to pass the Amendment. There are a few moments revolving around his relationship with wife Mary Todd Lincoln and his older son Robert, but even those scenes work best when taken as added pressure to the passing of the Amendment. The screenplay by Tony Kushner is very focused on what is important to the story and fills the screen with interesting characters and very clever, entertaining dialogue. The script is not perfect, but whenever there's a character (mostly antagonists) that could be a mustache-twirling caricature, you have amazing performers to provide extra depth.

Daniel Day-Lewis gives one of the best performances of his highly impressive career as Abraham Lincoln. Not only because he looks and feels like the President, but because he the script gives him what's he needs to really create an amazing character. Lincoln is not perfect, he has a history and he is a politician. He knows how the game is played and is not afraid to play it. All of that is conveyed by Day-Lewis who gives reality to the legend. And the rest of the cast is quite outstanding too. Critics groups have singled out Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, both of which are great; but the deep pool of character actors doing impressive work here is much deeper. David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward is one of the film's strongest building blocks, James Spader is surprisingly entertaining as shady W.N. Bilbo, Lee Pace is one of those actors I allured to earlier that make a thankless role realistic. The list goes on and on.

Those are the pillars that make Spielberg's film so great. Spielberg restrains his overtly sentimental style in order to serve the script and the acting. This is not to say the film lacks emotion, I mean, we're talking about Steven after all. It's just that the emotions don't feel heightened or unearned. We are not reacting to the "Spielberg face" or John Williams' score, we're reacting what happens. This film depicts a pivotal moment in American history and that in and on itself is powerful enough. We don't need to be made to feel more important or more emotional, we just need it to be told well and the script, the acting and Spielberg's restrained direction do just that.

The one thing that doesn't really work is the last five minutes. The movie shoves in Abraham Lincoln's assassination. A plot point that the film, as a story, doesn't really need. This is not a film about Lincoln's death. It doesn't really add anything and is handled in atrocious fashion. This is the one moment in which the movie goes full-on Spielberg, unashamedly telegraphing the emotion. The scene doesn't belong in this otherwise incredibly well made movie.

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