Uneven. That is the first word that comes to my mind when I think of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. The film has many moments of cinematic brilliance in it, but it also makes you wonder about how much better it would be if they just stuck to one story. It almost seems, that despite 12 years of research, Spielberg didn't have clear a idea of what he wanted to shoot - the story of the man and the president? Or the story of passing one of the most important amendments to American Constitution? The film is genius when it shows the latter. When it shows the former you keep wishing it would get back to politics as soon as possible.
Lincoln shows the events behind the passing of 13th Amendment, the one that abolished the slavery. We meet president Lincoln, recently re-elected for second term and we quickly learn of his desire to succeed in passing of the document and many troubles that stand in the way. Lincoln is forced to play political games, make empty promises and even flat-out lie. He is aided by Secretary of State William Seward (David Stratharin) and Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the chairman of the House of Representatives, who disagrees with Lincoln on many issues but agrees that slavery is an abomination.
Lincoln's wife Mary (Sally Field, who laughably overreacts in nearly every scene) is against the idea, telling her husband that he shouldn't do anything that would weaken the love people have for him. The opposition in the House of Representatives is also strong - the Democrats, mainly George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie) and his right hand Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) are prepared to do anything to stop the amendment from happening. Steward, on Lincoln orders, hires three men to help them procure the votes - W.N. Bilbo (hilarious James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson). The scenes with those three are some of the best moments in the movie, as they bring the much need comic relief.
The problem - and it's a really big problem - with Lincoln, is that the whole time I was watching it, I kept wishing Spielberg did what Ron Howard decided to do in Frost/Nixon - drop the sentimental, family angle and just focus on the fight. The reason why Frost/Nixon is such an electrifying movie is that it never really slows down, the sharp dialogue that is used as a weapon and the source of great wit is there at all times. With Lincoln it really feels as if Spielberg shot two different movies - one, very mediocre, detailing Lincoln's family life and him as a man dealing with difficulties and the other, superb one, detailing the events that lead to the passing of the amendment.
The Lincoln's scenes really lack the fire - I couldn't care less about his relationship with his wife or his sons. I really wish Spielberg would just hire unknown actress to play Mary Lincoln, instead of giving Sally Field all of those downright Oscar baiting scenes. She is way too old and just wrong for the part. From what I read she begged Spielberg for the part and he finally gave it to her. Field is so awful here I could barely watch her scenes. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Lincoln's older son, is completely useless and he doesn't even have a chance to shine. I wish these two's presence was just hinted and their screen time would be used on something better.
As for Lincoln himself - watching Daniel Day Lewis play him really made me wonder about something. Does the fact someone does an uncanny impersonation of historical figure really warrant award attention? There is no question that Lewis embodies the iconic president, the thing is that other for "you will procure me these votes!" moment he really doesn't shine. I don't know much about Lincoln so I can't say how accurate the movie is, but his insistence on talking in metaphors and telling long stories was very annoying at times. When one of the people in the room shouted "No! No more stories!" he shared my sentiments exactly. On the other hand I really can't blame Lewis. He does beautifully in the scenes where he interacts with characters involved in the game behind the vote. It's the scenes he shares with Field and Levitt that are the problem.
Now off to the great things - when we see the efforts of the three joyful helpers and House of the Representatives scenes, the film really comes to life. I think it's quite telling that Lincoln is almost completely absent from those sequences - ironically, despite the film's title, his scenes are the worst in the film. When we see the political games, the deals, blackmails, legal loopholes and tricks behind the vote it really picks and holds your interest. Spielberg's direction and Tony Kushner's impressive script are really outstanding here - despite the multitude of events and people involved you never lose track of what is going on.
The best parts of the film are without the doubt the speeches given in House of Representatives - whether they are pro or against the amendment they are incredibly written and passionately delivered. Those scenes are like pure injection of the adrenaline to the film and Tommy Lee Jones (who in my opinion easily steals the movie from Daniel Day Lewis), Lee Pace, David Costabile and Michael Stuhlberg all manage to make us feel as if we were right there and then.
Lee Pace is pretty much the only reason why I even saw this movie, as War Horse, Spielberg's previous film, was so terrible I couldn't even finish it. I don't know how it happened that Spielberg chose him to play Fernando Wood - at the time of the events real Wood was 53 years old, 20 years older than Pace - I just know I love the fact it happened. Pace has about 15 minutes of screen time here (which is by the way more than Jared Harris and Jackie Earle Harley have combined, why oh why did you spent so much time on family drama crap, Mr Spielberg?) but whenever he is on the screen, the screen is on fire. I really wish we saw more of Pace as his character was the most charismatic, magnetic and passionate in the whole film. Him and Spader are some of the biggest scene stealers in this year's movies.
But despite of my love for Lee, the true winner here is aforementioned Tommy Lee Jones. He creates such an honest and complex work. I really liked how the reveal about his private life was held off until the amendment was passed - otherwise the film would easily cross the line to overly sentimental and would make it harder for Jones to create such a nuanced work. Just like with Pace, when Jones was on the screen I completely forgot about Daniel Day Lewis's Lincoln.
The reason why despite many flaws I rated the movie so highly is that it managed to bring me to tears in one scene. The scene that was pure cinematic magic - the kind that happens when you are aware of what will happen, but the sequence is executed so flawlessly your heart is pounding hard despite of your knowledge of facts. I'm talking about the sequence of the vote and the ultimate passing of the amendment. The sequence is quite long but it holds your excitement throughout. Spielberg's direction here was just flawless and the moment when the history is made will definitely move you, maybe even to tears.
This is the magic of this film - it manages to transport you. The script is so detailed and intricate and the set designs and costumes so realistic, you really feel as if you traveled back in time. I have no way of judging if what we see is historically accurate, but when we get to see pretty much everything but Lincoln's private life in this movie, it's damn entertaining. The film runs about 10 minutes too long and the ending is disappointing (I wish it ended when Lincoln was on his way to the theatre), but there is plenty to marvel at here and it's amazing that at 160 minutes of run time you hardly feel the time passing - I love political movies so it might have been why I enjoyed the film. Even at its worst, Lincoln is never a bad movie.
The score by John Williams is nothing new or particularly impressive but it goes very well with what we see on screen. The cinematography on the hand was very clever and definitely caught my eye - the way the characters are at times in the shadow, whether they are people plotting on how to get the specific votes or just Lincoln, looking as if he was the ray of hope in the world filled with darkness, really added a bit of curious beauty to the film.
Spielberg has gathered a truly impressive cast here - you are bound to shout "Hey! I know this guy!" few times during this movie. Because of the strong script, they all get their chance to be memorable, even if their screen time is short. While the film would be infinitely better had they just focused on the amendment story, Lincoln with its powerful scenes and wonderful performances (minus Sally Field) is one of the year's best movies. A must see for people who love historical pictures and strong ensemble casts.
Lincoln (2012, 150 min)
Plot: In 1865, as the American Civil War winds inexorably toward conclusion,
U.S. president Abraham Lincoln endeavors to achieve passage of the
landmark constitutional amendment which will forever ban slavery from
the United States. However, his task is a race against time, for peace
may come at any time, and if it comes before the amendment is passed,
the returning southern states will stop it before it can become law.
Lincoln must, by almost any means possible, obtain enough votes from a
recalcitrant Congress before peace arrives and it is too late. Yet the
president is torn, as an early peace would save thousands of lives. As
the nation confronts its conscience over the freedom of its entire
population, Lincoln faces his own crisis of conscience -- end slavery or
end the war.
Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book)
Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and David Strathairn