Steven Spielberg's latest, critically acclaimed work comes across as a thoughtful but rather uneasy biopic
There is a war going on in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, and it's not very civil at all. In one corner, you have an almost certainly Oscar-winning turn from Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, coupled with a very thoughtful Tony Kushner script. In the other, you have John Williams liberally recycling his Saving Private Ryan score, and Spielberg, not really knowing what kind of narrative he wants to tell. It's a noble attempt at both an interesting character study and a documentation of the last four months of Abraham Lincoln's life, featuring the Emancipation Proclamation, the American Civil War and the 13th Amendment. Pity, then, that the end result is more of an uneasy hybrid of The American President, Good Night, And Good Luck., and the director's own Amistad. Historical accuracy isn't really an issue, as there will always be inconsistencies and controversies in filmed biopics (that cannot be helped), but strength of storytelling is, and it's here where Lincoln is found wanting.
|A cabinet meeting|
Lincoln is at its best when the issues raised by Kushner are matched effectively to Spielberg's sublime visual skill. In an unexpectedly subtle moment, the camera pans to a drooping bird on a branch, a sign that, perhaps, the Eagle was not exactly soaring at that moment in time, and isn’t nowadays either. Equally powerful are the rare scenes of bloodshed that we are witness to in the aftermath of the war, juxtaposed effectively with a shot of an increasingly frail Lincoln. It's a worthy depiction of how stressful times, especially wars, can really age a politician (see: FDR, Blair, Obama). Spielberg's contrasting of his rather Yoda-like Lincoln (let's face it, there are times when Day-Lewis sounds like he's just standing there and spewing proud words of wisdom) with the angrier, grumpier more realist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, enjoyably rehashing his deadpan shtick in period garb), is notable too in that it illustrates how even the best politicians may focus on what they think people want rather than what people actually want.
|Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, are you enjoying the play?|
One shouldn't be surprised, then, to find shades of Oskar Schindler in Spielberg's Abraham Lincoln; the apathetic sort who gains a foothold in life and slowly but surely takes responsibility in his own inimitable way. In other words, the typical Spielberg protagonist. It's just unfortunate that Spielberg's traditional storytelling approach comes across as tonally inconsistent when applied to a script like this, thereby ensuring that Lincoln, for all its value, will not rank among the best of Spielberg's oeuvre. Rather, it is a missed opportunity; the tale of a strong central character trapped in a muddled narrative.