Saturday, November 10, 2012
“Lincoln” is a competently made, watchable excuse for unsophisticated audiences to choke on their own virtue and applaud themselves for making it through a two-and-a-half-hour prestige drama. It’s dry as dirt, endlessly self-congratulatory, and totally lacking in intellectual and emotional depth and resonance.
Director Steven Spielberg sets the movie 18 months after the Emancipation Proclamation and two months after the president’s re-election, in the fourth bloody year of the Civil War. Lincoln is simultaneously commanding Union forces and quietly pursuing a negotiated peace with emissaries of Jefferson Davis’ CSA. He desperately needs the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, to pass the House of Representatives, and the majority of “Lincoln” revolves around the painstaking process of procuring the requisite votes (it’s structured like a clichéd sports movie; everything leads up to the big game, or in this case the big roll call).
What should make for dishy inside politics instead becomes a watered-down consommé of talented actors struggling with severely underwritten characters and subplots. Tommy Lee Jones gets to do the most speechifying as Thaddeus Stevens, an ardent proponent of racial equality (for his own reasons) whose loose-cannon temper may be the bill’s biggest hurdle. He gets to call those vile Southern Democrats every nasty name he can think of, but how much fun is it to knock down a straw man? Tony Kushner’s script draws the Confederates strictly with a modern pencil. Of course, they’re on the horribly wrong side of history, but to make this story compelling, we need a better sense of their beliefs and motivations. Instead, Kushner presents the lame-duck Dems as profiles in venality and cowardice – as comic buffoons. It detracts from the movie’s impact.
Sally Field gets to give a few D.C. pols their comeuppances as Mary Todd Lincoln, but she only really comes to life in a powerful late screaming match with Abe, in which her grief over the loss of one son makes her crazy at the thought of losing another. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays this second son, Robert, a role we’ve seen a thousand times (the son who wants to make a difference in the world without following in his father’s footsteps). Like so much in “Lincoln,” it’s generic and unremarkable. The wonderful David Strathairn does all he can with the role of William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, and there are some effective moments of pure behind-the-scenes political calculation between them. Other good actors get lost among the wigs and talcum powder at the House: John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, James Spader.
All of this is mere periphery, however. The picture will be remembered for one thing and one thing only: the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis. So, how is he? Fine. Good, I suppose. But Lincoln – at least this Lincoln – just isn’t a very interesting movie character. Day-Lewis spends most of the running time casting his eyes sullenly downward, telling more mildly humorous down-home anecdotes than Mark Twain and Rose Nylund combined. When he talks, everyone else onscreen listens in silence. Some of his vapid profundities leave you stupefied.
There’s a lot of dead air in “Lincoln.” Scenes that should pop fizzle and fade. Scenes end a beat too soon, or linger a beat too long. Some storylines drag on interminably, while others come and go so quickly it’s as though Spielberg were double-parked. (You would think with a budget like this, he’d give us a showpiece assassination sequence, but it happens offscreen, and the aftermath takes up all of two minutes.) “Lincoln” is very much an award-season enterprise, but it’s all resume, all deadly serious subject matter and honeyed John Williams crescendos. And with not a single black character I could name the next day, it’s the Civil War as told by, for, and about white folks