Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln (Disney, 11.9) is a somewhat authentic, deliberately paced, honorably acted, highly thoughtful History Channel movie that mostly concentrates on Abraham Lincoln‘s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment (i.e, the abolishment of slavery) in Congress. Spielberg’s approach to the material — an adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s “Team of Rivals” by Tony Kushner — is appropriately reverent, sturdy and subdued. It feels like a history lesson, and plays like a musty political procedural literally happening in the mid 1860s. It seems to unfold at the horse-drawn pace of that era.
In other words it’s a highly literate, passionately performed and very thoughtful bore, and for all the right reasons.
I myself was never bored, mind — I love history and period realism — but I would argue that the story of the passing of the 13th Amendment is an interesting saga with some great dialogue (Tommy Lee Jones‘ anger moments might be the best thing about it), but it’s not a riveting one. It’s not really movie material, certainly by today’s standards. It’s Showtime or PBS or History Channel material writ large by the Spielberg brand and the soulful skills of Daniel Day Lewis. Anyone who cares about doing this kind of thing correctly will understand and respect what Spielberg has tried to do, and in many ways has succeeded at.
But they will also admit to themselves that there’s something grindingly dutiful and a bit plodding about Lincoln, and that it gives you the feeling that you’re trudging through the narrative mud like a foot soldier in Grant’s Army. In some ways Lincoln is not that tonally different from Robert Redford‘s The Conspirator. And you know what that means.
It opens with a crassly calculated, totally bullshit scene in which Lincoln shares quiet words with four Union soldiers (two white, two black) under the cloak of night, and it’s amazing how phony it feels when one of the black soldiers, played by David Oyelowo, politely tells President Lincoln that he’s irked and disappointed that men of color aren’t allowed to become officers. And then he recites a portion of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and he walks away from Lincoln as he continues to recite, withdrawing like a member of a chorus in an early 1950s stage production of Brigadoon.
Yes, DDL’s titular performance is quietly arresting. A little recessive and self-regarding, perhaps, but he seems to have genuinely captured the A. Lincoln that I’ve been reading about for decades — the folksy but sly politician, the low-key, self-amused teller of jokes and cracker-barrel tales, the rigorously thoughtful and perceptive lawmaker, patient and wise but dogged by melancholia and a wife who provided little peace. It’s all there. His performance is never quite kicky or adrenalized enough — it’s largely about stillness and speaking softly and stoic restraint — to make you sit up in your seat and go “wow!” And yet it gains upon reflection. I left the theatre thinking this is certainly among the year’s best, and yet I’m not sure I need to savor his performance again. I think I’ve absorbed all there is. Same with Lincoln itself. I have a chance to see it again tonight, and I’m thinking “Eh…maybe not.”
Largely because I was tremendously irritated by dp Janusz Kaminski having gone with that same milky, bleachy lighting style that he’s used in so many Spielberg films. All those desaturated grays and browns and pallid complexions and interior, gas-lit shadows fit into the milieu, of course. They define the tone and mood of the film. But this is a Kaminski signature that we’ve seen time and again (Minority Report, Munich, A.I., The Terminal) so his work on Lincoln doesn’t feel like he’s tried to illuminate a specific story or theme or whatever. It’s Janusz in default mode.
There is so much milky, bleachy light pouring through the windows of the Lincoln White House that you’d think aliens from Close Encounters (the ones who hovered over Richard Dreyfuss‘s pickup truck and gave him a sunburn) have landed on the South Lawn.
Other things about Lincoln disappointed or pissed me off.
Did you know that the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives inside the Capitol building, which looks almost exactly the same today as it did in 1865, has several large windows, and that milky, bleachy light pours through during daylight hours? You didn’t know that? The chamber has no windows, you say? Well, you’d better check with Janusz Kaminski, my friend!
I didn’t believe that the 16th President travelled around without security protection of any kind. Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln never causes any kind of commotion when he shows up here or there. Nobody goes “whoa…it’s the President!” Instead they all go “oh, hey there, Mr. President…how goes it?” He just walks or roams around like any guy, riding in a carriage like some middle-aged tailor or accountant or physician. No oolah-boolah or “stand back!” vibe of any kind.
Below is a photograph (or daguerrotype) of the White House during the Lincoln administration. Looks pretty nice, doesn’t it? A clean shot of the same place but without the fountain. How hard would it have been for Spielberg to create a CG image of the entire structure? Too hard, apparently. There isn’t a single establishing shot of the White House or the U.S. Capitol (the huge dome of which had recently been completed in early 1865) in the entire film. No images of how the White House South Lawn or Pennsylvania Avenue or the Treasury building or the Potomac might have looked. Lincoln never goes for the big wow shot because, I’m guessing, it would have been too costly given the expected modest revenues. But they’ll spend the bucks on big CG compositions when Spielberg shoots Robopocalypse.
White House during the Lincoln administration, perhaps in 1862 or 1863.
In short, the outdoor capturings in Lincoln don’t look like 1860s Washington. They look like period-dressed Petersburg, Virginia, where the film was mostly shot, and other areas in Virginia (including Richmond).
Lincoln‘s interior sets, minimally lighted when those trademark Kaminski floodlights are absent, have been expertly littered with the clutter of papers and ink bottles and leather gloves and snuff boxes, but Lincoln is almost entirely composed of medium shots of shadowy interiors, medium shots of shadowy interiors and, just to break up the monotony, medium shots of shadowy interiors. And 90% of the time containing four or five or more middle-aged men arguing about politics and horse-trading and votes and whatnot. And the occasional young man (or small groups of young men) looking on in wonderment or admiration.
I was half-joking when I said I wished that Lincoln had been shot in Aroma-rama or Smellovision, but I was half serious also. I wrote that I was hoping for an atmospheric bathroom scene with maybe an insert shot of an 1860s toilet or a bathtub or whatever, and of course there isn’t. That was understood from the get-go, but it would have been cool.
Spielberg doesn’t show Lincoln’s assassination in Ford’s theatre, but his decision to go with an alternate way of conveying this event struck me as highly unimaginative.
And if you know your Lincoln history the bed he was placed upon at the Peterson rooming house wasn’t big enough for his tall frame, so he was laid down diagonally, corner to corner. This is ignored in Lincoln. The bed that DDL lies on has plenty of room.
Pretty much every performance has conviction and panache — Sally Field‘s Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s Robert Todd Lincoln, Gulliver McGrath‘s Tad Lincoln (except for the scene when he learns of his father’s death), David Strathairn‘s William Seward, Jackie Earle Haley‘s Alexander H. Stephens, Bruce McGill‘s Edwin Stanton, Gloria Reuben‘s Elizabeth Keckley, Jared Harris‘s Ulysses S. Grant, James Spader‘s William N. Bilboe, John Hawkes‘ Colonel Robert Latham, Hal Holbrook‘s Francis Preston Blair, etc.
The bottom line? Lincoln is a good film, deserving of respect and worth seeing, but it happens at an emotional distance and feels like an educational slog.