Monday, February 25, 2013


Lincoln is a sumptuously mounted production that seeks to teach us how to pass a Constitutional Amendment through Congress. The mechanics of legislation, with which the film spends the bulk of its time, alas, are of only passing interest. The central issue, slavery, is addressed as an ethical and moral issue, yet it’s held at arm’s length. It is never a visceral issue.

On the positive side, Lincoln has some excellent acting. Daniel Day Lewis is very good in the title role. Tommy Lee Jones is great as the larger-than-life politician Thaddeus Stevens (which stands in blinding contrast with his quiet and internal portrayal of the sheriff in “No Country for Old Men”).

There are several very good scenes buried in this overlong, overly explanatory movie.  One of my favorite scenes is Lincoln’s young son looking at photographic glass plates by candle light. (Technical note: Those should have been negatives, not positives, shouldn’t they?)

On the other extreme, there was an unfortunate scene where white Union soldiers try to recite the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln from memory and botch the job. After they leave, a black soldier finishes the recitation flawlessly. My criticism is that the scene is too “on the nose” -- meaning it bangs hard on the most obvious emotional note in the most obvious way, on top of which it’s a cheat for modern audiences who, if they know anything that Lincoln wrote, they know that speech.

This “on the nose” mawkish awkwardness is a common failing in movies directed by Steven Spielberg, and this movie is rife with the problem, especially in the musical score, which pounds on every emotional moment. Spielberg seldom is willing to let the audience decide for themselves what to think. He insists on hammering home exactly how the audience should feel about each scene. This is beyond annoying and nearly unbearable. The brilliance of Tony Kushner’s screenplay is consistently undermined by Spielberg.

Finally, the movie, which was already too long, makes the misstep of not ending where it should have, with the passage of the 13th Amendment through Congress. It skips forward several months in time to show us Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, followed by Lincoln’s assassination, both of which feel unnecessary and outside the concerns of the previous story.

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