Saturday, January 12, 2013

Lincoln: Meh

Let it never be said that I am not a person who is enamored of the best (and so often tragically and grotesquely unrealized) version of America. The documents on which this nation was founded bring tears to my eyes with the poetry of their hope and belief in the potential of Americans. And of all the stories that seem to support that hope, that of Abraham Lincoln's desperate devotion to saving the Union and liberating the slaves is one of the most moving. So why did I leave Stephen Spielberg's epic feeling like I had just watched three more-riveting-than-usual hours of CSPAN crossed with a sub par West Wing episode?

Lincoln tries to do a lot of work in relatively little space, despite its near three-hour running time. Screenwriter (and American genius) Tony Kushner admits that his first draft of the script was 500 pages. I would like to have seen that movie (or, as Nat suggests, miniseries). As is, the film parades a panoply of characters, all played by semi- to quite-famous actors, all reduced to mere sketches as they do their business to further their plot and move along. (James Spader is the funny one! Joseph Gordon-Levitt is idealistic and rebellious!) And that plot centers on about a month in Lincoln's life as he horse trades and dances the side-step with the "we've always been annoying" House of Representatives in order to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, thereby abolishing slavery before the cessation of the Civil War (when most Americans will no longer be inclined to support it).

Perhaps it shouldn't have been called "Lincoln." Maybe something like "13th," or "January 1865" would have better captured the film's project. It does get props for creating suspense surrounding the fate of an already long-established historical event (though I think Argo did it better), but there is much in Lincoln's life and presidency with which the film does not concern itself. I enjoyed seeing the icon represented as not only human but a bit of a rascal, and Daniel Day Lewis does, as always, earn his Oscar nomination. (Give yourself a few minutes at the start of the film to get used to how much he looks like Lincoln. You'll need it before you start actually paying attention.) Mary Todd Lincoln is notable for the way the character is written (she's sassy and not totally insane), but I wasn't that taken with Sally Field's portrayal. Some of the other performances are strong, particularly that of Tommy Lee Jones, who does a lot with relatively little, thanks to his decision to bring his weathered face and hang-dog eyes to the role, and the trio of lobbyists (Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) are refreshing in both form and content, as they unashamedly bribe congressmen to pass an amendment not for moral reasons but purely out of self-interest.

But I found myself bored at times--and I'm a person who has been known to watch three not particularly riveting hours of CSPAN. On purpose. Lincoln manages to be both too short and too long, suffering mightily from Jacksonian "too many endings" syndrome. I am glad Lincoln exists, because it is often beautiful and occasionally moving, but at the end of the day, Django Unchained has gotten more people saying smarter and more productive things about history and race whether they liked the film or not, and I think that says something.

No comments:

Post a Comment