When Steven Spielberg teamed up with playwright Tony ('Angels in America') Kushner as his writer on 'Munich,' the result was an historically based movie with something to say morally that was never less than riveting entertainment. So, the promise of the two reteaming to bring us the tale of Abraham Lincoln was one I was looking forward to.
And why not? Biopics can make great cinema. Powerful, moving and true. Think of Richard Attenborough's 'Gandhi' (1982) or David Lean's 'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962) - both biopics, both based on truth, both huge in scope and scale and both hugely entertaining cinema...
So I went into 'Lincoln' with high hopes, discarding bitter memories of the saccharine maudlin sentimentality of Spielberg's most recent barf-inducing family-friendly 'War Horse.' But what I got wasn't worthy of the title 'Lincoln' - instead it's 'The West Wing' does the passing of the 13th Amendment - only without Aaron Sorkin's brilliant, witty and dynamic writing that made the 'West Wing' such great TV drama. What Kushner delivers is a script in which nobody talks. Everybody speechifies. Endlessly.
Janusz Kaminski's cinematography is as beautiful as we've come to expect of the man who shot the likes of 'A.I.' and 'Saving Private Ryan' for the Berg, but 'Lincoln' is so invested with its own sense of importance and magnitude that it singularly fails to do what the likes of 'Gandhi,' and 'Lawrence of Arabia' do so well - that is - to entertain. Spielberg can entertain and moralize and teach history all at the same time as he proved with 'Munich,' 'Empire of the Sun' and 'Schindler's List' - but the pompous grandstanding of 'Lincoln' undermines anything remotely akin to entertaining or captivating drama.
Instead, 'Lincoln' comes off as a cold hard history lesson. Attempts at creating levity and light relief, in the character portrayed with gusto by James Spader, are so obvious and cack-handed that they fall flat against the rest of the movie's lofty and oh-so serious tone. Compared to the dull drag of the first two thirds, the final third of the film is far more energized and dramatic and scenes centering on Tommy Lee Jones' character are, by comparison, so well done that I found myself wishing this were his movie instead of Daniel Day Lewis'.
Judging by the high praise and OSCAR-buzz surrounding 'Lincoln' I can only guess that nobody dare cross Spielberg or mess with a movie that celebrates the end of slavery for fear of appearing racist. But for me, Tarantino's 'Django Unchained' is a far more effective denouncement of slavery as an institution. Lincoln was a great man, but as a movie, 'Lincoln' suffers from an overblown sense of self-importance that achieves the remarkable feat of making both Lincoln and Daniel Day Lewis boring.
There are things to rave about here - the costumes, the cinematography, John Williams' score, the majority of the superb cast assembled (Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field are especially great), the wigs, the hats, the etc etc yawn yawn yawn - but these are all secondary to character, dialogue, and drama which are all crushed under the weight of Kushner's obese screenplay. It's based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography 'Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln' - which I can only imagine must be pretty heavy going if this weighty tome of a tale is anything to go by.
I kept imagining how great this movie could have been had Spielberg just got 'The West Wing' writer Aaron Sorkin in to write it - he wrote 'A Few Good Men,' 'Moneyball' and 'The Social Network' after all. Anyway, if the machinations of Lincoln's American Civil War politics are your thing and the minutia of White House politics that led eventually to emancipation turn you on - 'Lincoln' is for you.
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