Dir. by Steven Spielberg - 2 hrs. 30 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
There's two ways to look at a film like "Lincoln." The cynical way would be suggest that it's a timely bit of Oscar-bait, both on the director's and the lead actor's part, and in the choice of subject matter. And I can't deny that I had a little bit of that coursing through my veins before I went in to see "Lincoln." That cynical part of me says, "Of course a big-budget film about Lincoln is going to be successful. How could this talent screw that up?" It feels like a gimme, a dive with a low degree of difficulty. Everyone knows that Steven Spielberg is a talented filmmaker, and that star Daniel Day-Lewis is a very capable actor. And there's a part of me that resents people for spending their time on something that doesn't feel like a challenge. That line of thinking is why we can't have nice things (like heroes, or really, role models of any kind) anymore; anyone that anybody would look up to is only has that status on loan until some inevitable, stupid scandal brings them low. It's like we need a moment of shame to counter-balance actually liking someone and what they've been doing; anything less feels like idolatry.
Here's the facts as I see them, in regards to "Lincoln." This is an excellent film. It focuses on Lincoln's attempt to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the one that would permanently bar slavery in the United States of America. Kind of a big deal. Kind of a pivotal moment in the history of the U.S.A. Pretty damned fascinating. I don't know how closely this movie adheres to history (and don't care; to me, if a film isn't billing itself as a documentary, it's one and only goal should be to make a good film, facts be damned), but the political bickering and partisan politics feel like a timely representation, and with one of the awesomest collections of facial hair in the history of film as an added bonus.
Secondly, although this is a broad film about a big event, this is also exactly the kind of film that Steven Spielberg excels at making. I might secretly wish he'd tackle something a little more, shall we say, challenging, but this is what he does and what he does best. This is a big story, and there are moments that humanize each of the characters, and that makes the whole thing feel a lot more relateable. Everyone, even if they haven't experienced it personally, knows someone who's stuck with a crazy chick in a strained marriage or has a rough relationship with their children. Abraham Lincoln wasn't some deity he was a man who got something amazing done while muddling through real-life problems. Isn't that an amazing message? The idea that Lincoln was just another man, even though a very smart and shrewd one, and still had the vision and ability to make a real difference in the lives of all Americans is something that everyone can take to heart. It's not a cloying or patronizing message, this is a call to arms.
Thirdly, taking on a role like playing Lincoln is a pretty big risk for Daniel Day-Lewis. Maybe risk isn't the right way to put, let's call it a real challenge. We all have an idea of what Lincoln was like, whether it was formed from a monument, or if you are aware of his lesser-known San Dimas Address of 1989, or if you think he fights vampires at night. We all know him, his actions, and Day-Lewis has to not only incorporate all of that, he has to find an approach that isn't a direct copy of something else. To my mind, he achieved that. His Lincoln is weary but determined, liked to tell tales (but they always have a point), and not at all certain of what the outcome of all of this will be. So, when I cynically refer to this role as being Oscar-bait, that might be true, but only if you can pull it off.
And that's the key to "Lincoln," for me. They pull it off. The story is rousing, a reminder of an instance where we, as a nation, were able to rise above our differences and do the right thing together, scary as that might have been. As I said before, this doesn't come across all shined up and spit-polished, Spielberg (and everyone else involved) are staring their audience directly in the eye and saying, "We did this before, and we can do it again." No apologies, no excuses. Get on the same page and make something happen. That's a bold message.
So, a film that can feel a little obvious if you're not being charitable is only so in hindsight: Spielberg and Day-Lewis knock this out of the park. And maybe the reason it feels a little obvious is because it's the right fit, as in these are the people who were meant to bring their specific skills to this project to make it the way it is. "Lincoln" is a damned fine film. It's not the best thing I've seen this year, but I wouldn't argue with people who felt it was; making a big film that's successful both financially and creatively is just as harder as mining gold out of difficult material.
4 / 5 - Theatre