It took a Seinfeld episode to clear the air and allow people to confess that “The English Patient” was basically a bore. Seinfeld is no longer live but truth demands that someone speak up and remark how overly long and somewhat dull Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is. Yes, it has the sainted Daniel Day Lewis, overly made up so that his natural genius for characterization is compromised by too much goop forming too many wrinkles and too much facial slack. It has the feisty Sally Field, playing Mary Todd Lincoln with the same brio she brought to Norma Rae and the same weltschmerz she brought to the matriarch in Brothers & Sisters. Even if the discrepancy in Abe and Mary’s height is historically accurate, it’s too distracting in scenes they play together, probably accounting for why she’s prostrate on the floor in one crucial scene and sitting next to him in a horse drawn carriage in another. Too much of the movie looks like painterly tableaux of various events instead of scenes where characters interact dramatically with each other. Spielberg pays attention to landscape, interiors, lighting and the inclusion of representatives of every class; he’s careful to have black people be well-spoken, well-dressed, literate and kind. Lincoln himself is played in a very understated, folksy manner with little range in the performance except for a marital fight with his wife and a final outburst with his inner circle as he pounds on the table, insisting on the importance of passing the 13th amendment. It’s hard to create a historical epic with the star acting in a very low register
This movie is less about Lincoln the man and what made him tick than about the events surrounding the passing of the 13th amendment. Of necessity, much of this becomes repetitive as Lincoln exhorts his aides to do what they must to get him the vote. There are some decent cameos with Hal Holbrook and James Spader but it’s Tommy Lee Jones who steals the show as Thaddeus Stevens, bringing much needed fire to this principled, outspoken and insulting character who ultimately realizes the necessity for compromise and argues that eloquently in his own defense This is Tony Kushner’s best writing in the screenplay as Stevens is the only character who has some ambiguity to his part, in addition to a surprise ending for how we see and understand him.
The attempt to show Lincoln as a father, silently grieving for the loss of one son, doting on the youngest and missing the mark with his oldest is forced and seems super-imposed on a movie that doesn’t really concern his family life. It’s as if Kushner had drawn up a master list of Lincoln’s aspects and upon discovering that family relations seemed deficient, added gratuitous scenes to flesh that out. The worst decision in the movie concerns the ending. Spielberg had a perfect parting shot of Lincoln, huddled with his cronies after the successful vote for the amendment, then being summoned by his house-man to join Mary for an evening at the theater. There is a wonderful long shot of his back, slowly and solemnly receding from our view as he walks to the waiting carriage and his tragic rendezvous with fate. Instead of ending there, Spielberg went for the more obvious, tugging at our heartstrings and spelling out what happened with reaction shots of Lincoln’s young son hearing that his father has been shot. And then, as if to ensure that every school child get one more example of Lincoln’s brilliant oratory, Spielberg piles on the flags and music as we see Lincoln declaiming “with malice toward none, with charity for all…”
Although this is a thoughtful movie about a very great man and his momentous decision to force the issue of abolishing slavery, it’s not half as memorable as “Gone With the Wind,” a magnificent soap opera about the civil war that engages us emotionally for an even longer running time Spielberg achieves the feel of versimilitude but misses the heartbeat that comes from human emotion and the interplay of larger than life characters with each other “Lincoln” is about a president and his mission; the mission is accomplished while the man remains outside our reach.
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