Arriving in a cloak of Oscar nominations-twelve to be precise- this latest Spielberg production detailing the trials and tribulations of the legendary American President as he tried to pass a bill to abolish slavery in a civil war torn America in the nineteenth century somehow, despite its length, fails to ever ignite. Therein lies the problem of this film from the outset as it has all the necessary ingredients to make it great including, probably, one of our greatest film makers, outstanding performances from his cast- Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Tommy Lee Jones provide only several of the great performances on show here- historical fact, and fantastic subject matter. Why then does the whole thing feel such a drudge ?
At two and a half hours long there is certainly enough time to delve behind and explore the man behind the myth but somehow Spielberg decides not to do this and forages a well worn path when approaching his subject –to the point of reverence- bringing nothing new to a familiar story. At various junctures Lincoln- perfectly captured by Lewis in a career high performance- drifts off into telling anecdotes strong on relevance and metaphor whilst his aides drift off into a semi coma-like state waiting for the end where they can show their appreciation by nodding their heads in agreement. Much of the film had me feeling like one of those aides during those moments as I was able to appreciate so much of it whilst nodding my head in recognition at the film making skills involved though never actually feeling involved.
In fact every scene looks and feels as if it is a scene from a great artwork or historical masterpiece but this is a film not a painting and requires other methods to bring it to life. Instead one notable scene when Lincoln strolls around a battle ground where dead bodies are piled up in mounds invokes nothing of the horror which has preceded these circumstances and the bodies all look too artfully arranged to be actually convincing. As he meanders into the distance one can almost hear Spielberg yell ‘Cut’ as yet another perfect scene is committed to celluloid history and the whole scene feels as though it has been captured by brush strokes rather than a camera.
The narrative centres on a civil war torn America and the desires of its President to pass a controversial amendment to abolish slavery. Being a moderate Republican he faced strong opposition from the Democratic Party as well s some of the more right wing members of his own party. Unable to secure a convincing majority he has to resort to underhand tactics and promises to end the war to seal the deal. Being the president there is no way he can be involved in such methods so it is left to others to do his bidding for him whilst he remains blissfully unaware of any subterfuge which can return at a later to date to compromise his presidency. The methods are all to complete the bigger picture- another art reference perhaps?- and the abolition of slavery is only the beginning of a greater more extensive plan but he is aware that sacrifices must be made before they can be put into operation even if he does not see the result of his labours in his own lifetime.
As it is such a familiar story it would not be spoiling it to reveal that his bill is passed successfully and his prophecy that he would not see all the fruits of his labours rang true following his subsequent assassination.
Lincoln follows hot on the heels of Tarantino’s Django Unchained which also deals with slavery but in a totally irreverent and historically inaccurate way. Slavery must be the Oscar subject du jour but whilst Speilberg’s film has powerhouse performances, unblemished cinematography and historical fact Tarantino’s is the one I would choose to sit through again as it at least has wit, style, verve and entertainment value. ‘Lincoln’ therefore is a worthwhile and perfectly executed film but unfortunately it is also something of a bore.