Friday, March 11, 2016

Lincoln

2/4

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Lee Pace

Rated PG-13 for An Intense Scene of War Violence, Some Images of Carnage, and Brief Strong Language

I will claim that Steven Spielberg is one of the greatest filmmakers that ever got behind a camera.  Three of his films, "Schindler's List," "Jurassic Park," and "Saving Private Ryan," are instant classics, and others are just a notch below (or equal, depending on who you ask).  So when you put in a movie that proudly bears his name, it's not unfair to expect something brilliant.  But Spielberg has been in a bit of a rut lately.  The last great movie he made was the fourth "Indiana Jones" movie which came out in 2008.  Since not everyone agrees with me, I'll say that he hasn't made something truly special since "Munich."  That was 11 years ago.  To be fair, nothing he has made since then has been awful, but there's no calling "Lincoln" anything but a misfire.

Unlike most biopics, "Lincoln" doesn't have a huge scope.  Although it's set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, Spielberg's attention is focused on the behind-the-scenes political conflicts revolving around Abraham Lincoln's attempts to pass the 13th amendment, which would free the slaves and end the civil war.  It's not a bad idea in principle, considering that Congress at the time was made up of backstabbing liars, racists and other shady characters (and you thought ours was bad...).  The problem is in the execution.

Steven Spielberg has always understood the importance of a good screenplay and not underestimating the intelligence of the audience.  Many of the screenplays he's built films from were brilliant ("Saving Private Ryan" and "Schindler's List" are two examples).  But in hiring Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner to pen the script, he made a colossal mistake.  Kushner co-wrote the script for "Munich" with Eric Roth, but here he's on his own, and the results make one wonder if Roth did the lion's share of the work in the 2005 film.  The script for "Lincoln" might as well have been on a really big stage.  All the characters do is talk and talk, the sort of thing that happens on a Broadway stage.  It would be okay if they said anything interesting, but a substantial amount of the dialogue is pretentious babble that makes no sense.  I can't think of a time when Spielberg has misjudged his audience so badly.

With the exception of "War Horse," Steven Spielberg has always gotten strong performances from his cast.  Daniel Day-Lewis became the first man to win three Best Actor Oscars with his performance in this film (and the first thespian that Spielberg has directed to an Oscar win).  He does a superb job of inhabiting his character to be sure (the entirely convincing make-up helps), but the screenplay limits him too much to be able to do anything truly special with the character.  Sally Field is in top form as his wife Mary Todd, or Molly, as he affectionately calls her.  She grasps the character's fierce love and loyalty to her husband but also her mental instability.  Tommy Lee Jones is excellent as the fiery Thaddeus Stevens, whose support for the amendment is a liability.  Jones doesn't have much range, but here he's excellent in a role that perhaps only he could play.  Able support is provided by the rest of the cast, the names of which are impressive: David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, Bruce McGill, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson, Joseph Cross, Jared Harris, a vicious Lee Pace, Gloria Reuben, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jeremy Strong, Walton Goggins, Lukas Haas, Julie White and S. Epatha Merkerson.  And in small roles, you've got pre-fame Dane DeHaan, David Oyelowo, and Adam Driver.

Spielberg's trademarks are also muted or unsuccessful.  The work by his regular collaborators, editor Michael Kahn, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and legendary composer John Williams, is lacking all around.  The editing is at times sloppy and the score is so minimalist that it's quite possible to watch the film and not realize it even has one.  But the film's look is the most surprising aspect, and not in a good way.  Janusz Kaminski has won two Oscars for his daring and innovative camerawork in "Schindler's List" and 'Saving Private Ryan," but his work here is, well to be blunt, awful.  I guess the intent was to give the impression of natural lighting from the time period, but it doesn't work.  There is constantly so much backlight that it's impossible to see anything but the glare.  The outdoor scenes look great, but sadly this takes place mostly indoors.

It's not the concept or the vision of the material that doesn't work.  It's that Spielberg uses a misguided screenplay to explore it.  Skip this and watch "Amistad" instead.  It has a more compelling story, a coherent script, and it's an all around better movie.  If it wasn't 4:30 a.m., I'd simply pop it in right now.

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