Monday, April 15, 2013

Short Take: Lincoln

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s treatment of the final months of the life of Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), may be a passable history lesson. But it’s a pretty mediocre movie. The picture focuses on the effort in early 1865 to pass the constitutional amendment that outlawed slavery. Apart from some occasionally salty language, it appears intended for middle-school social-studies classes. Spielberg and Kushner seem to have no faith that the audience has even the most basic history under its belt. The film assumes one doesn’t know the amendment will pass, or that the Civil War is about to end. Certain material is cheesily used for suspense purposes, such as the impending arrival of a Confederate peace delegation whose presence could undermine passage. There's also the decision by Lincoln’s son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to enlist. The dialogue is often overstuffed with exposition, and it gets insultingly repetitive at times. By the halfway point, one may want to throw things every time “13th amendment” and “Constitution” are used in the same sentence. Spielberg appears straitjacketed by the material. Most of the scenes occur in darkened rooms, and the staging and camerawork rarely rise above the ordinary. That said, he gets good work from the cast, and the film is handsomely produced. The detailed, disciplined performance by Day-Lewis is the sort of thing one is supposed to admire rather than enjoy--he’s rather remote--but he has humor, and he isn’t dull. Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the fiery abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, is the most engaging of the actors. Stevens is a wild card even if one knows the history, and Jones gives him an outsized theatricality and a hilarious deadpan wit. The other standouts are James Spader, who is quite funny as an uncouth lobbyist, and David Strathairn, who plays Secretary of State William Seward with considerable gravitas. Sally Field does a fine job as Mary Todd Lincoln, the high-strung First Lady, but most of her scenes are extraneous to the main story. They generally slow the picture down. Again, the history lesson, not aesthetics, seems paramount. The film is based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

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