Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln starring the amazing Daniel Day Lewis in the title role worries me; it seems the director of fantastic films such as Jaws and Schindler’s List has lost his way as a filmmaker. If true, that would be a sad day for all lovers of cinema, because Spielberg is one of the best directors in film history.
It is easier for me to tell you what’s right with Lincoln rather than what is wrong. The most essential piece of the puzzle is Lewis as Lincoln, a towering figure played by an actor of equal stature. Lewis is impressive in the role, and as he stares at the camera for long moments (sometimes way too long ones at that), you get a feeling that you are looking at the face of the 16th president.
Unfortunately, that is not enough to carry the film. Nor are the other great actors who are lending Lewis support – Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), Joseph-Gordon Levitt (Robert Lincoln), Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair), and David Strathairn (William Seward) add considerable thespian weight, but the film still sinks to the bottom. The question I asked myself is “Why?”
The first scene of the film provides the answers. With the backdrop of war being so crucial to the story, we get our only battle sequence. Spielberg shows he doesn’t forget what none of us can from Saving Private Ryan, but then he completely abandons this and the film takes a turn toward character study – and that is how it progresses for the rest of the way.
Of course, the most important character here is Lincoln, and we get plenty of him. We see him as master politician, loving husband and father, admirable leader, and good friend. All of this is wonderful in a book, but in a film we need something more (much, much more).
I am sure the critics who have praised this film are doing so in deference to Lewis and Spielberg, whose resumes are undeniably impressive; however, the film drags on and on (2 hours and 29 minutes). In one scene when Lincoln starts to tell yet another story, one character screams and says he can’t sit through another one. The enraged fellow stalks off the set, and I felt like I wanted to join him.
I think the saddest part of all is thinking about the film that this could have been. The “drama” that Spielberg tries to force feed us is all the machinations that went into passing the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. While this is an interesting historical piece, it would have been much more suitable on the History Channel and not in a movie theatre. The conflict is here, but as the film drags on, it seems like it never will end. I judge a movie by how many times I look at my watch, and during the course of this one I did so countless times.
I think credit must be given for cinematography (Janusz Kaminski), set decoration (Jim Erickson and Peter T. Frank), and costume design (Joanna Johnston). The film clearly establishes setting in extraordinary fashion – you feel transported to 1865. I am certain with 12 Oscar nominations under its belt, that this film will take home some gold, maybe all of it, but sometimes in the past the best film didn’t win and that will be the case here for certain.
Lincoln can be appreciated for the craft of making the world of 1865 come alive and for the superior performance of Lewis as Lincoln, but otherwise it is a towering disappointment, as big and empty as that stove pipe hat that Lincoln wore. We can only hope that this is an aberration and that Spielberg will bounce back to true form with his next production.
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