Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lincoln (2012) – Review

Review: Lincoln is a historical political drama built on wonderful performances and historical significance that still resonates today. The film is about President Abraham Lincoln’s battle within the House of Representatives to pass the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution (essentially making it illegal to own slaves, among other things) before the end of the Civil War (which, in its fourth year, saw the South beginning to wane considerably), as with the war ended it would be much more difficult (negotiating the peace with the South).

Director Steven Spielberg has structured the film to be essentially a political drama centered around the struggle to pass a piece of legislation – a historic piece of legislation but one nonetheless – and thus the connection to the main narrative journey for the audience comes from whether or not they care about the consequences if the legislation does not pass. Spielberg faces a difficult challenge from the start, as this being famous (in at least that everyone knows that Lincoln freed the slaves, in simple terms) informs the audience of the outcome before the film even starts. Thus, the audience must be drawn into the story by more than just the outcome of the narrative. Spielberg accomplishes this by also making the film a character piece focusing on Lincoln (not so much biographically looking at his career, but more about the man himself, his personality).

Looking first at how the film works as a political drama, excusing the fact that the audience already knows how it ends, the film achieves its narrative goals but lacks a powerful deeper dramatic impact. Its main flaw comes from how Spielberg manages the tone of the film. For the most part, the film is presented as a very serious drama with grave consequences to the actions of the characters, matching the backdrop of the very bloody and devastating Civil War ravishing the country – the stakes could not be higher. Plus, the importance of passing the amendment in the House quickly (as it had already been passed in the Senate), a main narrative point that sets the plot and characters in motion, stems from Lincoln’s understanding that the North mostly agrees that making slavery illegal will help end the war, but if the South is going to surrender in short order then the amendment is not necessarily essential (as Democrats and conservative Republicans do not support it as adamantly as liberal Republicans). Thus if the amendment is going to pass at all, it needs to happen before the South begins its surrender (and thus the urgency). Spielberg is able to convey how critical the urgency is, but Washington D.C. in the film seems unaffected by the war. Yes, there are graphic images of the war, but for the most part it feels very removed from the drama in the film. Spielberg uses an almost playful tone in many of the political scenes (especially those featuring Bilbo, Latham and Schell and their mission to buy votes – though, these are among the most fun moments in the film, but should we be talking about fun moments in a serious political drama?), which undermines the tension that he is otherwise building. The House is also comprised of laughable caricatures, with many of the representatives (particularly the Democrats) portrayed as exaggerated buffoons (again, how can the audience take the film seriously with characters such as these). The film at moments feels like a political farce, like In the Loop, and yet, again, the stakes could not be higher (is Spielberg really making a satire addressing today’s political climate?). It is as if Spielberg is worried that the film will be overly dramatically weighty and wants to infuse light moments into the narrative to allow the audience to breath (especially given the film’s long runtime). However, this is ultimately problematic because the audience no longer feels just how important the passing of the amendment is (even if they intellectually understand it) nor do they feel the grave pressure that the war is putting on all of the characters, as the whole political drama is presented to them as a satire of sorts tonally. The saving grace of the drama however comes in the form of a few serious characters that convey the full weight of what is going on (namely Thaddeus Stevens), but it is not quite enough.

 To compliment the political drama structure of the film, Spielberg lays a character study of Lincoln on top, giving the audience a look into the man. The tone of the character work juxtaposed to the political drama (satire) does not always mesh well (as the character stuff is seldom light), often leaving these moments of the film feeling overly tedious and slow (especially those involving Mary Todd Lincoln). Spielberg wants to give the audience a full understanding of Lincoln, not just his role in politics but also his personal life (reminding me of the HBO miniseries John Adams in this way). However, despite how good the performances are, the film is first structured as a political drama and thus the character moments should play into the narrative of getting the amendment passed (and for the most part they do), everything else is not needed. Lincoln’s interactions with his family, which Spielberg uses to develop the character, add very little to the film, even detracting from it greatly as they drag down the pacing, because they do not inform Lincoln’s decision-making process in regards to the main narrative, they are merely present as fluff (and thus unnecessary). It is as if Spielberg presents Lincoln as a great man accomplishing great things in spite of his personal family drama, even going so far as to have Mary say as much. Yet, Lincoln seems unaffected by his personal life when it comes to his handling of the affairs of state, which again makes these moments narratively and dramatically unneeded. The audience never feels the toll that his personal life has on him (because it seems to have none). Spielberg does have some great character moments as well, however, specifically those featuring one of Lincoln’s many stories (wonderfully illustrating both the man and his thoughts on particular matters). The stories reveal much more emotional character detail about Lincoln that resonates with the audience in relation to the film’s main narrative. If Spielberg wanted to dive deeper into the character, the film should have been structured as a character piece primarily, not centering all the dramatic tension and action on the passing of the amendment, or sought out a longer format to tell a more in-depth story (like a miniseries).

These two main faults do hold Lincoln back from being great, as despite its grand scale, social relevance and overall strong filmmaking (though, I would argue that the finale image in the film is very sloppy, including the awkward dissolve) it is far too tedious, infuriatingly so. The film is filled with beautiful, powerful and electric images and scenes, but is constantly undermined and compromised emotionally by slow pacing (resulting from a flabby secondary narrative) and an uneven tone.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Steven Spielberg is a master of Hollywood filmmaking. What that means is that he is the master of making grand event films that are both highly entertaining and dramatically impactful (regardless of the genre, be them blockbusters or serious dramas). With Lincoln, Spielberg certainly tries to achieve this balance, which probably accounts for the lighter tone and caricature-like characters in a number of the scenes juxtaposed to the serious social and political importance of the narrative – i.e. he is trying to make a blockbuster serious drama. However, the film is quite flawed, and thus should not be counted among his best Hollywood dramas (Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Munich), and yet it is still impressive.

John Williams’s score gives Lincoln an added emotional depth. It has a weight to it, which coveys to the audience the significance of the characters and events taking place. Williams also gives Lincoln a classic theme (maybe not among his best, but a fitting one nonetheless). Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s lighting gives the film an overall an almost cheerless feel, matching the season in which it is set (being the dead of winter) and general mood surrounding the country (that of devastating war). However, it does clash a bit with the tone at times. In terms of shot composition, Kaminski’s photography is fantastic. Lincoln is often cast in shadow or in silhouette, playing off his famous features. Rick Carter’s production design compliments the cinematography adding a very realistic grit and grim to the images. The world of 1865 was a very dirty place, and Spielberg, Carter and Kaminski are not afraid to present a more realistic look for the period (instead of the usual gloss that Hollywood films have) with faded colors, dirt and incessant shadows clouding everything in darkness and gloom. Overall, the film is very strong aesthetically.

The acting throughout Lincoln is very good (even if some of the performances tend towards the side of caricature). It has a massive supporting cast with many great and well-known actors. However, James Spader (sorting of playing an 1865 version of his The Office character Robert California) steals almost all his scenes and is very entertaining (the montage retellings of his Bilbo et al. acquiring votes is hilarious and completely engaging). Lee Pace (playing the vocally opposing Democrat Fernando Wood) is also fantastic and highly entertaining. David Strathairn (playing Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward, who was also targeted for assassination on April 14th, 1865 but his assailant failed) has the difficult role of being the audience’s in to what is going on, being forced to mainly convey exposition and context. However, Strathairn is still very good often playing devil’s advocate to Lincoln. Sally Field has a thankless (and grating) role playing Mary Todd Lincoln, left to be an irritation (both for the audience and) in her husband’s life. She does accomplish being annoying (so I guess she played her role well?). Tommy Lee Jones is brilliant in the film, playing a man (Thaddeus Stevens) that must comprise his beliefs to ultimately take the first step forward. He is able to exist both in the exaggerated silliness of the House arguments and still maintain an emotional connection with the audience (it is quietly the best performance in the film). As always, Daniel Day-Lewis completely embodies his character (in this case Abraham Lincoln). Every line of dialog or movement feels organic. It is a tough task to take on such an iconic historical figure, but Day-Lewis brings so much humanity to Lincoln that the audience leaves the film feeling like they really got a sense of the man.

Summary & score: Lincoln in many ways is a triumph and a disappointment. 7/10

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