Looking at the Medium Picture: Lincoln (Review)

By Jennie Jarvis

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Tonight, I had the rare opportunity to attend a sneak preview of the new Steven Spielberg film Lincoln, currently scheduled for a November 16th release. The film follows the infamous Abraham Lincoln in his last few months of life as he attempts to get the House to approve the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. Since we have no institutional slavery in this country today, I’m not giving anything away when I say that the 13th Amendment was passed. Therefore, the drama lies in how the president was able to convince his very divided House to agree with his proposal. This film dealt with large and sweeping American themes such as the right to freedom and the smarminess of politics.

As many film goers has come to expect from a Steven Spielberg film, the details of the film were handled in an amazingly specific and gorgeous way. I will be surprised if Oscar nominations aren’t announced for this film’s production design, costuming and make-up as all of them worked seamlessly to create a world in which these characters lived and breathed. The battle sequences, which accurately depicted the “intimate and brutal” nature of the fighting that took place during the Civil War, are sure to make my history-buff and Civil War reenacting friend Roland proud. The cinematography and lighting were gorgeous, and John Williams has once again created a score that orchestras across the country will be queuing up to perform.

So, with all of this good stuff, why did I find myself checking my watch multiple times during the movie and even yawning?

To me, I think that the biggest problem with this film was in its scope. The filmmakers were worried about getting both the large, sweeping epic-ness of this story and balancing it with the minute details of the time period. However, something in the middle got lost. This film was so busy trying to document the time period and the historical significance that it forgot that films can never be about a time; they need to be about the people of that time.

In my years of being a movie fan, I have fallen in love with several historical films that were both as accurate as a film can be to the events that inspired it and emotionally moving. Some of my favorites from the last decade include The King’s Speech (2010), The Queen (2006), Bobby (2006) and Argo (2012). Each of these stories did a great job of letting its audience in on a little piece of history. They didn’t do it by preaching the story or trying to shove its own significance down our throats. Instead, they did it by allowing us to fall in love with the characters of the film. Once we identified with the men or women’s struggles, we could experience the world around them as they experienced it, thereby learning about history as a side effect of enjoying a simple yet moving story.

Lincoln never allowed us to really get close to any of the characters, however. Even the title character of Lincoln never really shows us his humanity. When we first meet him, he has already made his famous Emancipation Proclamation, and he has soldiers (both black and white) fawning over him. We never saw him rise to his greatness; we are just told that it exists, and we are asked to believe it. But from the moment we meet him, he doesn’t really do anything that makes him “great.” He often comes across as more of a bumbling storyteller who irritates the men around him. While his mission of ending slavery is noble, he doesn’t really do anything himself to try to make it happen until the very end of the film. By then, however, we have already formed our opinions about him. Daniel Day-Lewis’s lackluster performance does little to encourage us to like his character. He had a bit of a sliminess to his performance that was rather creepy, especially considering that he seemed to want to touch any young men that were around him in each scene. While I don’t think that it was intended to imply pedophilia, there is one particularly uncomfortable scene where he sneaks into his assistant’s bedroom and sits on his bed, working quietly next to the sleeping young man until he awakes him with a hand on his knee. In the hands of a better actor, this scene could have come across as endearing, but in the hands of Day-Lewis, it was just creepy and uncomfortable.

Another reason why it was hard to identify with any of the characters came in the sheer size of the cast. I counted at least 30-40 named characters before I lost count. Some of them were more minor characters who really only spoke when it came time to vote, but others were intended to be more substantial characters. Three men hired to convince the Democrats to vote for the 13th Amendment (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) could have been combined into one character. A-list actors cast to play major historical figures (Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant and Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens, for instance) were wasted in scenes that could honestly be cut from the film all together.

Those larger roles that actually matter to the plot were all so busy trying to share screen time that none of them were really that well developed. Mrs. Lincoln (Sally Field) had two emotions – angry/irritated and crazy. Their son (a role that wasted the talents of Joseph Gordon Levitt) was just insolent and nothing else. I will admit that Tommy Lee Jones put in a fantastic performance as Thaddeus Stephens, the only likable character in the entire film. Had the entire story been told from his point of view, I think that this would have been a far superior production.

The character that I have the most issue with, however, is Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), Mrs. Lincoln’s maid. All she did the entire film was sit quietly and cry. She had one speech where she admitted to the President Lincoln that her son died fighting for the Union, but other than that, she did nothing else. Considering that this was a film meant to celebrate the end of slavery, it was a shockingly white cast. While the film did a great job of showing the lives that were lost during the War, we never really got a glimpse of what they were fighting for. Elizabeth tries to explain how she was beaten once when she was a slave, but her speech is quickly cut off, and we never return to it. Her character is reduced into being a token black object, which ironically aids in the film objectifying all black people. This means that the film actually does what the heroes of the film were trying to eradicate with the 13th Amendment.

This very white look at a multiracial issue shocked me since Pulitzer Prize winner playwright Tony Kushner wrote the screenplay. His epic theatrical masterpiece Angels in America tackled race with such grace and dignity that it is surprising to see how he handled this issue here. The rest of his screenplay, however, seemed to resonate with his unique and sometimes compelling writing voice. His dialogue was intelligent and poignant, and there were a few places where moments of brilliance could be glimpsed in the story (including a few inspirational moments where House representatives changed their minds at the last moments in favor of ratification).

However, it’s clear that Tony Kushner could use a little more experience working in the film medium. Often, I felt like I was watching a filmed version of a play since the characters would enter the room, sit down and then talk for ten minutes at a time – a big screenwriting 101 no-no. While “talking heads” are acceptable in a play, the primary storytelling device in a film is supposed to be event, and there were very few events here. Long discussions would be so lengthy that the editor inside of me would start yelling “Cut!” long before the scene was finished. Daniel Day-Lewis was given so many monologues that my brain tuned out to what he was saying, and the moments that were supposed to have strong, emotional resonance just fell flat. While I would LOVE to see a stage adaptation of this script, I honestly think that Kushner could have easily shaved at least 30 pages from this screenplay in order to really make it work as a movie.

I can see potential for a great film in this epic, but I just don’t think it’s where it needs to be now. Around me in the theater, people were shifting and fidgeting, checking the time and whispering about how “drawn out” the film felt, but no one left their seats. There’s something here – buried underneath an extra half hour of film. Sadly, it’s just not there yet. I appreciate their attempts at historical accuracy, but if they chose to tell the story through the film medium, then they need to embrace it. I hope that they are able to clean it up before it’s official November 16th release.

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