Saturday, 2 February 2013


Steven Spielberg's latest, critically acclaimed work comes across as a thoughtful but rather uneasy biopic

There is a war going on in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, and it's not very civil at all. In one corner, you have an almost certainly Oscar-winning turn from Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, coupled with a very thoughtful Tony Kushner script. In the other, you have John Williams liberally recycling his Saving Private Ryan score, and Spielberg, not really knowing what kind of narrative he wants to tell. It's a noble attempt at both an interesting character study and a documentation of the last four months of Abraham Lincoln's life, featuring the Emancipation Proclamation, the American Civil War and the 13th Amendment. Pity, then, that the end result is more of an uneasy hybrid of The American President, Good Night, And Good Luck., and the director's own Amistad.  Historical accuracy isn't really an issue, as there will always be inconsistencies and controversies in filmed biopics (that cannot be helped), but strength of storytelling is, and it's here where Lincoln is found wanting.

A cabinet meeting
The film is smart enough to raise a series of serious questions and not offer cut-and-dry answers, in a similar manner to Spielberg's admirable but equally uncertain Munich. How significant a figure would Abraham Lincoln be, it asks, without his "war power" – gravitas and respect earned from leading the United States through the American Civil War? And how would that, in turn, have affected the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the passing of the 13th Amendment? It's also interesting to watch Lincoln's various debates with his cabinet and ponder how much power a US President actually has – is he a real leader, or need he be no more than a figurehead for his administration, like Ronald Reagan was? They were powerful questions for their time, and they're no less thought-provoking today.

Lincoln is at its best when the issues raised by Kushner are matched effectively to Spielberg's sublime visual skill. In an unexpectedly subtle moment, the camera pans to a drooping bird on a branch, a sign that, perhaps, the Eagle was not exactly soaring at that moment in time, and isn’t nowadays either. Equally powerful are the rare scenes of bloodshed that we are witness to in the aftermath of the war, juxtaposed effectively with a shot of an increasingly frail Lincoln. It's a worthy depiction of how stressful times, especially wars, can really age a politician (see: FDR, Blair, Obama). Spielberg's contrasting of his rather Yoda-like Lincoln (let's face it, there are times when Day-Lewis sounds like he's just standing there and spewing proud words of wisdom) with the angrier, grumpier more realist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, enjoyably rehashing his deadpan shtick in period garb), is notable too in that it illustrates how even the best politicians may focus on what they think people want rather than what people actually want.

Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, are you enjoying the play?
Elsewhere, you don't really know whether you’re watching a truly dry historical document or a collection of Spielberg’s Greatest Hits tossed into a bloated message movie. The portrayal of Lincoln as a family man, featuring an occasionally hysterical Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and an irritatingly precocious Gulliver McGrath as Tad Lincoln, feels at odds in conjunction with the film's weightier material. Merging the minuses and even the pluses of slavery (yes, Day-Lewis's Lincoln does raise some) and the pro’s and con’s of the Proclamation with rather heavy-handed courtroom drama is both cheap and sloppy. Even the admittedly effective scenes with Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, wasted), centred on his decision to fight in the war, feel lifted almost directly from War Of The Worlds and Schindler's List.

One shouldn't be surprised, then, to find shades of Oskar Schindler in Spielberg's Abraham Lincoln; the apathetic sort who gains a foothold in life and slowly but surely takes responsibility in his own inimitable way. In other words, the typical Spielberg protagonist. It's just unfortunate that Spielberg's traditional storytelling approach comes across as tonally inconsistent when applied to a script like this, thereby ensuring that Lincoln, for all its value, will not rank among the best of Spielberg's oeuvre. Rather, it is a missed opportunity; the tale of a strong central character trapped in a muddled narrative.