LINCOLN (2012, Steven Spielberg): 4/10
LINCOLN is Spielberg at his worst and his most crassly manipulative, but I’m sure audiences are just going to lap this up. It cajoles, seduces, and congratulates all of us in the theater for understanding that slavery is bad, and that all men are created equal. (And gets in a few har-har jokes at how ridiculous it seemed to 19th century politicians that women would ever get to vote). If you need to be reminded that Lincoln passed the 13th Amendment, or that he ended the Civil War, or that he fought for the rights of black Americans, this is the film for you!
For the rest of us, this dry, pompous, pious, dusty shoebox of a movie is a thudding bore. Occasionally it takes a break from men drinking tea, smoking cigars, and measuring their mutton chops against each other to get in a few jolts of sopping wet humor — partly in the form of sick burns delivered by the heroes of the film (Lincoln gets several, Mary Todd gets a good one in, and the rest of the time in the form of Tommy Lee Jones’s lovable old scamp Thaddeus Stevens). Jones is terrific, but the script just serves up his opponents as softballs for him to swat away like Ty Cobb.
When the film isn’t letting its Good Guys oh-snap-no-he-didn’t verbally smackdown the evil racist Congressmen, it follows around Honest Abe as he leans against desks, unleashing one corny anecdote after another. I can see an SNL sketch forming already, where time is of the essence but Lincoln is around, so everyone has to wait while he spins an old yarn with a moralistic punchline. It’s a shame that the character is so absurd, because Daniel Day-Lewis plays him to perfection. He’s one of the world’s best actors and deserves all the praise he’ll get come awards season. But although he carries the weight of the world on his tall, lean shoulders, and knows how to calm nerves with a sly joke, this president is forced by Spielberg to serve as a Holy Savior with Human Struggles, a figure more than a man.
And all the while, Spielberg uses the hoariest of cinematic tools to hammer his points home. In one outrageously over-the-top scene, Abe and Mary argue over whether to allow their son to fight in the Civil War. Behind Abe is a window revealing a relentless lightning storm (because all arguments in movies happen during thunderstorms, while all romantic scenes happen in sunlight), the audio popping in thunder strikes with each fierce point — and behind Mary is a raging fire in the fireplace, its flames licking the screen to prop up Mom’s fury. It’s another example of Spielberg having so little faith in his audience that not only are we forced to listen to preachy lecture after preachy lecture on ideas that are already obvious, but he supports these messages with ham-fisted direction. He might as well have shot the film in black-and-white and left only Lincoln colored in red, white, and blue.