Steven Spielberg’s serious movies always seem to suffer from the same problem. To be fair, this seems to only be a problem to a small minority, but, to me, this problem is a huge hindrance to the film icon’s persistent need to make movies that “matter.” When Steven Spielberg makes a serious movie, he tries to offer answers to questions that don’t have any.
With Schindler’s List, Spielberg made one half of a spellbinding, gruesome, realistic depiction of the Holocaust. He also made one half of a corny, inspirational, and sentimental mess. Schindler’s List’s problem, at least for me, is that it tries to understand the Holocaust. It tries to understand how something like could have happened, and it tries to offer the audience answers that it might understand. He sends the viewer away with the conclusion that something good can happen anywhere, at any time, and in the worst of circumstances.
For the most-watched depiction of the Holocaust ever released, it might be selfish to say, I would like to see a depiction of how most of the ones who died experienced it. Call me a cynic, but a hopeless, disturbing, intimate portrait of the ones who died in the Holocaust can be just as redemptive as the one Spielberg filmed. Not redemptive because they’re dying, but redemptive because life is short and painful and hard, but we still have it. We still have life. That’s the only answer. Life is precious, the loss of it is sickening, and the Holocaust is terrible.
Spielberg’s serious movies are just like his fun movies: simple, focused on absent fathers, and very focused on making the audience ultimately satisfied with answers. Only, his serious movies are about 60% less fun to watch.
And then there’s Lincoln, which is exactly like every other serious Spielberg movie, but also radically and completely different. Because with Lincoln, there is actually an answer. However, it’s an answer that we’ve known for a really long time. Slavery is evil and disgusting. Lincoln was really awesome.
With this movie, we’re also treated to a perfect and nuanced performance by an actor who is incapable of being bad. How do you even review a Daniel Day-Lewis performance? The man is amazing. He’s the best in the world. For two and a half hours, I got to see the real Lincoln interact with the world. I got to see the weight of his decisions on his shoulders. I saw the exhaustion in his face. I watched him age ten years in four months.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance in this movie is nothing short of miraculous, and it transforms an okay movie about a universally beloved man into a really good movie about a universally beloved man.
Spielberg wisely keeps the camera still and out of the way, and he allows Day-Lewis to inhabit the role without pretension.
Now that my obligatory gushing about Day-Lewis is out of the way, let’s talk about the movie.
Lincoln focuses on the last four months of the man’s life, which were almost exclusively centered around passing the thirteenth amendment. Tony Kushner (Angels in America)’s screenplay was once over six hundred pages, and it acted as a “greatest hits” of Lincoln’s life, but Kushner, of course, realized that a six hundred minute movie wasn’t going to do well in the box office, so he just pulled a chunk from the script and they made that.
Kushner’s lyrical and realistic dialogue adds an amazing weight to the film, and his clear excitement about the material shows through the impeccable attention to detail in the way words were used in the nineteenth century. Kushner’s fantastic script elevates the entire production. The characters are well-wrought, the structure is solid, and Kushner’s own history as a homosexual during the AIDS scare certainly makes him qualified to understand what it’s like to be an aggressively despised minority.
And yet, despite this amazing pedigree, Lincoln is just not that much fun to watch. It feels like a really, really well-rehearsed lecture from a professor you already love. The lecture would have been better with a little improvisation and some tangents, but your professor just couldn’t bring him/herself to stray from their cherished material.
The movie is long at 150 minutes, and this is not helped by the fact that most of the tension is derived from the answer to a question we’ve had for over a hundred years.
We would have benefitted greatly by material that focuses on Lincoln the man, but this movie simply isn’t about that. Day-Lewis brings some of that to the screen, but the movie is about the amendment through and through.
In fact, I was a little shocked at how seldom Lincoln is on screen for a movie supposedly about him.
Not that this is a bad thing. In fact, the greatest strength of the movie is in its truly, truly staggering cast of supporting actors. Every character actor on the planet gets a moment in this movie. (Lucas Haas plays Soldier #1!!!) Michael Stuhlbarg is a standout in his role, as is Hal Holbrook, but the real stars of this movie are James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes as lobbyists who serve as a sort of gonzo Three Stooges movie in the middle of a very self-serious historical drama.
James Spader is something of a revelation, single-handedly turning dull and meanderingly-written scenes into immensely watchable slapstick. I don’t understand at all why these three men are in a silly nineties comedy, but it completely works in propelling the story forward without boring us to tears.
To be honest, the cast of supporting actors is so long and so impressive that you’ll find yourself saying “Man, what is that guy in?” in every scene of the movie. It will bother you. Joseph Cross is in this movie. Yeah. It’ll bother you.
Gale from Breaking Bad (David Costabile) is in this movie. It’ll bother you, even though I just told you. Trust me.
Lincoln is the kind of movie that wins Oscars. Great performances, fierce patriotism, an understanding of right and wrong, amazing costumes, and plenty of klee-nex moments. It’s a serious Steven Spielberg movie about the most beloved American president.
What do you want me to say? You’ll probably like it. I did. But it won’t change your mind about Lincoln, or America, or Spielberg, or anything really.