Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Lincoln - Theatrical Review

Release Date: November 9, 2012

Director Steven Spielberg is no stranger when it comes to true life stories of oppression and denial of freedom and his new feature about one of America's greatest historical figures is exactly what we have come to expect from the man, too bad it has little to do with it's title character though.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: AMC 16 Tyler Galleria
Time: 5:45 pm November 25, 2011  
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 2 hr 23 min
Studio: Dreamworks Pictures

Loves: Steven Spielberg   
Likes: Historical biographies, the entire supporting cast   
Neutral: Daniel Day Lewis   
Hates: Biopics that are about what the person did instead of who they are   
I hope you like political dramas: Cause there is a lot of time spent dealing with politics

It is 4 years into the Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is preparing to push his bill for the 13th Amendment to abolish all slavery in the United States of America. On the eve of the vote however, the war is coming close to ending and unless President Lincoln can get the votes he needs to pass the bill, all may be lost. Employing the help of his entire staff, Lincoln sets into motion events that will lead to one of the most important amendments in American history.

Abraham Lincoln is one of the most prolific and revered historical figures in American history. He is universally known for one thing, the abolishment of slavery. Sadly, Steven Spielberg's new film, deceptively entitled "Lincoln", is not so much about who the man was, but instead about what the the man accomplished. By fixating on this singular moment in Lincoln's life as opposed to giving us a look at who he was, where he came from and how he became the man that stood up for a large portion of our nation's oppressed citizens, we get this admittedly very detailed look at how the political system of that time was manipulated and the means by which Lincoln himself orchestrated the passing of a bill that under any other circumstances never stood a chance. Spielberg's film and Day-Lewis' performance are both strong and perfectly highlight this important moment in U.S. history, but sadly those strengths only help to magnify the film's unfortunate limited scope and lack of interest in its title character.

The film opens in typical Spielberg fashion with a very eloquent and understated introduction to Lincoln already in office. We see that he is indeed a man of the people, regardless of race or creed and that he respects them and their sacrifices enough to speak with the enlisted men face to face. But you also get the notion that he is a troubled man, one that has many burdens bearing down on his soul. It's important to note that while there are likely many different historical documents that describe in detail Lincoln's mannerisms, speech patterns and overall demeanor, there is no definitive way to establish how to properly portray him. However, after seeing Daniel Day-Lewis' performance it is near impossible to picture the historical figure any other way.

Day-Lewis is an actor who is consistently critically acclaimed for nearly every role he takes on, with multiple award nominations and statues to prove it. He is a gifted actor, there is no doubt about that, but for some reason he has never been a very big box office draw, most likely due to how he has always supported the film he was in as opposed to having the film support his own selfish ambitions. Those same qualities persist in "Lincoln" as the actor embodies the tall and lanky leader with a weariness and earnestness that feels completely authentic. He disappears into the role, sharing many similar facial features that when in seen in profile bears an uncanny resemblance to the 16th President of the United States and approaches the role in a very subtle manner never once attempting to showboat. In short, he was born to play this part and does not disappoint.

His fantastic performance is however made slightly tragic by how little interest the film he appears in seems to have in who exactly Abraham Lincoln was. Instead we get a finely detailed look at the politics that were employed to push through his labor of love, the thing he had been working to achieve his entire political career...the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. It might seem unpatriotic or just plain wrong for attacking a film dealing with one of the most important documents in U.S. history, but it is impossible to shake this feeling that Spielberg and company have dropped the ball with this one.

The majority of the film is spent in a multitude rooms with an assortment of older men of power discussing how best to get the votes needed to pass their bill. When they learn that they need a large percentage of Democratic votes, the film quickly becomes this race against time to rally all the votes needed as the war comes closer and closer to a resolution. The rare occasions we are outside the confines of the White House or congress, we are treated to sequences with what appear to be the early beginnings of lobbyists running around town trying to cheat, bribe and coerce as many votes as they can while being intermittently cut back and forth between brief moments with Lincoln trying to keep his eldest surviving son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from enlisting in order to protect his wife Mary's (Sally Field) sanity.

To be fair, most of the scenes involving the political system of that era were often fascinating due mainly to the peek we get at how politics worked during its infancy. It is staggering to see how naive the world was at that time. If this wasn't the beginning of backdoor politics, it certainly perfected it. Parallels with how President Lincoln used the Civil War to push his personal agenda and how President George W. Bush used the war on terror to push his personal agenda is eye opening to say the least. Witnessing first hand what it took to get that Amendment passed feels like a necessary evil, yet there is a conflict with how you give one President a pass and condemn the other because his agenda was more in line with what was right, despite what the majority of the population thought at that time.

The politics and eventual outcome is all brought to life in a way only Steven Spielberg can deliver, with a level of unparalleled authenticity and a surprising amount of humor, but everything else didn't work quite as well though. Lincoln's family and personal life are given brief moments of screen time but since we have nothing really to go on, it mostly all falls flat. Lincoln's relationship with Mary feels tacked on when it should be a central focus. His relationship with Robert is borderline unnecessary at times as are any scene with his youngest child. The lack of any of time spent with Lincoln before he became the iconic figure we all know makes many of these scenes about his personal life feel oddly out of place at times. None of it has anything to do with the 13th Amendment and thus becomes needless excess.

By not showing Lincoln's roots, where he came from, how he was raised, the obstacles he must have faced and overcome growing up or even how he found his wife and raised his own children, it limits the film's scope to only this one particular moment in his life. The impact of what this amendment meant to the man, why he wanted to do it and where his passion came from is all but lost because we have no context for any of it. We know he desperately wants to pass the bill and we know why, but we don't know why it means so much to him. That is the real tragedy of Spielberg's "Lincoln", we never get to know who Abraham Lincoln was, which in turn gives the film all the dramatic weight of a historical re-enactment you might find on the History Channel.

If not for the immaculate recreation of that specific era and the stellar performances from the all-star supporting cast, including the legion of talent found in the film such as Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Hal Holbrook and David Strathairn (among many many others), the film would have little redeeming value. All the dramatic moments are rendered moot simply because we know the outcome and despite creating a real sense of suspense during the final vote in congress, there isn't anything to really get all worked up over. By not providing any sort of history on Lincoln for the audience it cripples many of the films more dramatic moments which is just a shame.

In the end "Lincoln" is a finely crafted and well acted look at a monumental moment in American history. It's only real fault is failing to fully utilize all the potential there is in recounting the life of one of our nation's greatest leaders. If you are in the least bit interested in seeing the process which got the 13th Amendment pushed through congress in a time where more than half of the American population was still in favor of slavery, then you will likely come away fairly pleased with Spielberg's film. It was done with the utmost care and attention to detail one would expect from the director, yet the lack of focus on the Lincoln, the man he was before becoming President, and who he was is immensely disappointing and leaves must to be desired. This is one of those rare films where there is nothing technically wrong with it, but it still fails to deliver on what its title promises.





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