I don’t think most people would argue that Steven Spielberg is one of our very best directors working today. The amount of iconic films that he has made is gargantuan. JAWS is still my favorite, but he has also made several films that would make my top 100, like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the first 3 INDIANA JONES films, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, E.T. Hell, I even love HOOK and 1941. His serious films are also really good, like SCHINDLER’S LIST, AMISTAD and THE COLOR PURPLE. Not to mention fun popcorn entertainment like MINORITY REPORT, WAR OF THE WORLDS and the JURASSIC PARK movies. I admit though, that he has been more hit and miss these last 10 years. I didn’t care for A.I., THE TERMINAL, or MUNICH. And I just recently saw THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS and I was underwhelmed. But still, when a new Spielberg film is arriving at cinemas, I get more than excited. It’s an event! So I was very much anticipating his take on one of the country’s greatest presidents.
Surprisingly, this is NOT a biopic. It just focuses on Lincoln’s run in office during the Civil War. The plot is relatively straightforward and simple. Abe is dealing with the stress of trying to get the emancipation proclamation passed by congress. With the help of Thaddeus Stevens and a few others, the president tries to find people who will vote to pass the bill. We also see how the stress carries over to the president’s wife, Mary Todd. And there’s a subplot with Lincoln’s son Robert wanting to join the army and fight in the war, even when his father objects.
I’m actually glad this wasn’t a biography. There’s too many of those out there, and they’re really hard to do right since they span a lot of time. So I liked that this was more of a sustained story. However, the movie disappointed me. I expect spectacular things from Spielberg, so when he delivers something that’s just average, it’s a bit of a letdown. Now, LINCOLN is not a bad film by any means, in fact there was many things I liked about it, but it just didn’t blow me away.
The story structure was part of the problem. It starts off fine, as we see things through Lincoln’s eyes. The opening scene with the president talking to some black Calvary officers was really well done, and felt very “Spielberg”. But then about halfway through, it felt like Lincoln became more of a supporting character as the story focuses more on Thaddeus and the House of Representatives trying to pass the bill. This stuff is all right and is decently executed, but I didn’t have any emotional investment with the characters, though I liked Thaddeus’ last scene. I felt more like a distant observer through most of the film’s run time.
The performances by almost everyone is great to outstanding. As to be expected, Daniel Day-Lewis delivers another phenomenal performance as Abe Lincoln. He completely embodies the character. I loved that he used a higher pitched voice than most actors who portray Lincoln (which I heard is more historically accurate anyway). His work is definitely worth seeing. There has been a lot of buzz concerning Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus. I can see why, as his character has a strong arc and gets some of the film’s best lines. But it’s nothing you haven’t seen Jones do before. It’s pretty much the same type of performance as his Oscar-wiinning role in THE FUGITIVE. He’s got that same sarcastic tone and that same straight-faced look, except this time he’s got a wig on. Don’t get me wrong, he’s really good and entertaining to watch, but it’s not an Oscar caliber performance in my opinion.
The movie is loaded with several character actors and actresses. Sally Field gives a hammy, but solid performance as Mrs. Lincoln. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is reliable as usual as Lincoln’s son Robert. There’s also good work from David Strathairn, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, and Jared Harris. The only performance that wasn’t great was from Michael Stuhlbarg (A SERIOUS MAN). Normally, I think he’s a great actor, but there were some moments here (like when he places his vote) that I felt he was way off. But the real surprise of the movie was James Spader. Wearing a thick mustache and a few extra pounds, I never once saw the actor. I saw a character. He plays one of the guys trying to get congressmen to vote for the bill. He gets to be the comedy relief as he’s a hard-drinking slob. He’s not in it a terrible amount, but he lights up the screen every time he appears. It’s a well thoughtout performance that Spader nails down to the very last detail. Just watching him react to things was funny. So, Bravo! to James Spader. Well played.
While most of the performances were entertaining to watch, the direction is surprisingly low-key. Unlike WAR HORSE, which was very stylish as it featured ambitus shots and exhilarating camerawork, LINCOLN doesn’t look that great. While the production design seems to be historically accurate, the cinematography has a boring, washed out look to it. The filmmaking isn’t bad, but it’s shockingly average. No interesting camera movements or stylish shots. Just pretty standard directing. Usually when you see a movie made by Spielberg, you can obviously tell. But not this movie, which could have been directed by just about any of your average run-of-the-mill filmmakers. Spielberg seemed to be on auto pilot here. The script has some good dialogue here and there, and has a surprising amount of humor, so it never seems boring. But I wasn’t emotionally invested with anyone in the movie. And with Spielberg, I expect to feel the magic. There’s really no magic here. Even John Williams’ score is forgettable. In fact, it’s so under the radar, that I only remember hearing it a couple of times during the movie.
It may seem like I disliked it more than I really did. The movie never made me mad, and I enjoyed some moments. It was interesting to see inside the house or representatives back then, and to see how everything worked. But it just wasn’t special. And with Spielberg, I expect something better than average. The performances are definitely better than average, but the movie itself is just okay. History buffs are sure to get more out of the movie than I did, as it is really well detailed, just not emotionally involving. ★★½ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language.
– Running time: 2hrs. 29min.