Dir: Stephen Spielberg
Cert:12A • US: 150 min • Twentieth Century Fox • January 25, 2013
It was only after I read that Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay for Lincoln that I decided I would watch the film. The idea that Stephen Spielberg, who sees the world through a sentimental eye, would take on this Titan of US political history made me apprehensive. Kushner’s epic Angels in America is one of the greatest American plays of the Twentieth century. His involvement was a splendid sign. Lincoln was a complex, calculating and brilliant politician, and needs a complex, calculating and brilliant writer to understand him. The official folksy image of Honest Abe the rail-splitter, the man who kept his speeches in a Stovepipe hat, was Lincoln’s PR front, and precisely the sort of image I assumed Spielberg would recreate. I could not have been more wrong.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is a rich and complex portrait of a President working to pass an amendment to the US Constitution to outlaw slavery. Daniel Day Lewis’ performance is exceptional, and Kushner’s prose is extraordinary. In one scene – an exchange between Lincoln and his wife about their eldest son Robert’s desire to serve in the army – Mary Todd breaks down, and cries, “we’ll pay for the oceans of spilt blood you’ve sanctioned, the uncountable corpses, we’ll be made to pay with our son”. It’s a powerful scene that is charged by outstanding performances from Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Field, a pitch-perfect script, and deftly sensitive direction from Spielberg.
The film is built around the triumvirate of Lincoln, Mary Todd, and Thaddeus Stephens, leader of the Radical Republican faction of the Republican Party (in a magnificent performance by Tommy Lee Jones). Had kept its focus on the three, Lincoln could have been a masterpiece.
Watching Lincoln is, in many ways, like watching the last double-episode of a twelve-part mini-series without having watched the preceding ones. The considerable cast of characters would have been established, their complex motivations outlined, and their reasons for either supporting or opposing the amendment to abolish slavery perfectly clear. The fault with Lincoln is that its content is too great for the structure that contains it, and there are far too many characters to squeeze into its 150 minutes.
Part of that problem is in the title. Lincoln. A more accurate title would have been The 13th Amendment. Lincoln is the protagonist, but this is not a story about him, it is a story about the passing of the 13th Amendment and his role in that. And so too much goes unexplained. In one early scene, Francis Preston Blair is conference with Lincoln. There is some awkward exposition explaining what a significant political force Blair is, and why he would want to take a delegation to the leadership of the Confederacy. Then the name Jefferson Davis is mentioned, and immediately let drop. It may have led to more awkward exposition to point out that Davis was President of the Confederate States of America but it was not done. To assume the audience knows this is careless.
The plot tries to do too much, contain too much, and explain too much, rather than focussing on the core elements. It was consequently dull where it should have been interesting, and all because there was no time to develop its wide cast of characters. The sense of movement, of urgency, of drama – all three were lost.
The ending fails because it concludes with Lincoln’s assassination. Spielberg’s sentimentality comes to forefront as it closes with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, his great “with malice toward none” speech, which suggests that Reconstruction would have been far better under his leadership. Again, the audience would have to know when this speech was delivered to understand the point, as no indication is given.
Lincoln is, in the end, a frustrating film. It glitters with moments of brilliance, and is led by an exceptional team of actors. Yet as a whole it is far less than the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, it’s a complex vision of Lincoln that has not been seen before in American cinema, and a Lincoln is far closer to the historical sources.