Here's the thing, though. Spielberg is a good director. Seriously, he is. I'm not going to say he isn't a master at what he does, because that would be ignorant. There are just certain things he does which I don't like, and of the 3 primary issues I have with him, only 1 of those has to do with his actual directing.
The first thing is that I don't like the scripts he chooses. They're cheesy, overly long, preachy, and play it pretty safe and mediocre. He directs them well, but I'm usually very bored by them. Yeah that's a big issue to have, but it has nothing to do with his actual directing. The second thing is that he keeps hiring John Williams. Similar to Danny Elfman and Tim Burton, this symbiotic relationship has gone from working beautifully to becoming one of tired acceptance with a distinct overtone of forgettable "not caring anymore." And at this point, Williams really seems to be running low on ideas as the last memorable piece he wrote was "Duel of the Fates" for "Star Wars: Episode I." Back in 1999.
Third and finally comes the only real issue I have with Spielberg from an actual directorial standpoint. There comes a time, oftentimes several throughout the course of his films, where something dramatic will happen, usually having something to do with racism and the like. In any case, someone will make a dramatic gesture, will say something, or will do something to fly in the face of the established oligarchy that has been opposing them. Everything slows down, the camera pans around everyone at a low angle as they look upwards with thoughtful expressions or mouths agape as they slowly nod their heads with new understanding on life and humanity, all to John Williams' music swelling underneath.
This happens in nearly every Spielberg drama I can think of. And I hate this scene. I really do. It's so cheesy. It's so telegraphed. It's so cliche. And it's seldom really earned. It's just there because well, that's what Spielberg does a lot of. People are always labeling grand, sweeping action shots as "Spielbergian," but why doesn't anyone else use it to describe that hunk of cheese as well? He uses it more often than the first one, it seems to me.
I think it's the head nod. That's what kills it for me.
So it was not without some sense of apprehension that I went to go see "Lincoln." I'm not going to lie, I really wasn't digging this one from the trailers. Maybe if it had been another director I would have had more interest in it, but because it was Spielberg, I knew it would be cheesy and preachy. And I was right about that. It was cheesy. In fact it was cheesier than I had imagined it was going to be. And it was indeed preachy, but not as much as I had feared. So we've got a plus and minus with that.
But one thing I didn't count on "Lincoln" being was so droning, and even bordering on dull on occasion. And the reason for that is because the only reason this film exists is to get a few more Oscar nominations (and probably wins) for Daniel Day-Lewis. Now some of you may read that as being overly callous, but what else am I supposed to think about a film that is made up of Daniel Day-Lewis performing monologues for roughly 73% of the 2 and a half hour run time?
This should have been called "Speech: The Movie."
I'm going to come out and say right now, however, that if you like Daniel Day-Lewis, you will love this film for those exact reasons. Perhaps that is one of the benefits of being a weird method actor that only does a movie once every 5 years or something - when they finally get you to star in something you know nobody else is going to matter.
Daniel Day-Lewis is undoubtedly good as Abraham Lincoln. I did genuinely like him in it, he was quite convincing, and yeah I guess he "became the role" as he is wont to do. But honestly I didn't really feel an appreciable difference between his performance and any other good actor who would have probably played the part just as well. At no time did I think to myself "Only Day-Lewis could have pulled this off. Nobody else would have been close."
Does that make "Lincoln" bad or Day-Lewis' performance not matter? No, of course not. I'm just throwing it out there before the awards season begins and everyone starts kissing his ass as The Greatest Living Actor again. He's good, but perhaps people are mistaking lack of quantity for excess of quality. I call that the "Terrence Malick" effect. Although Day-Lewis is far better at his trade-craft than Malick is at his own.
The rest of the elements really don't matter too much, to be perfectly frank. It's set during Lincoln's last few months as he fights to pass the 13th Amendment, and much of the movie is political maneuvering as the Republicans fight to get a majority of the vote in the Senate in order to pass it. That's all well and good, and it is interesting to learn about aspects of the country's history that I was unaware of. But it's just a backdrop to see Day-Lewis start up with another amusing anecdote, which he does so often that it even becomes the topic of a joke at one point. And yeah, that was actually a funny joke, but we still had to sit through the long, plodding story afterwords.
To be fair there are many speeches Lincoln gives that are quite good. The best one that I recall concerns The Emancipation Proclamation, and the risks involved in doing it, and the potential fallout from it. Not only does that give us great insight into his state of mind, but it dumps a whole lot of exposition on us in a pretty believable manner, and clues us in as to why the 13th Amendment needs to be passed now. That's great stuff, but there just too many dull, repetitive monologues in between the good ones, and it makes Lincoln come off as more than a bit long-winded.
Tommy Lee Jones, playing senator Thaddeus Stevens I found to be a more interesting character than Lincoln, mostly because I liked his story and conflict along with his more fiery personality. The point when he is forced to compromise his values for the greater good is one of the more engrossing moments of the film. Unfortunately it's relegated to a 2 minute sequence and then never really brought up again.
He and his wig were honestly my favorite characters.
Sally Field will probably get some Oscar buzz, as its the kind of role that demands it. Was she good? Yeah, I guess. Am I going to remember her performance in a few days? Probably not. More than paying attention to whom they gave screen time to, I was more annoyed with the actors they wasted. Great actors like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jackie Earle Haley who are pushed to the back of the room and given pretty "nothing" roles. For shame.
There isn't much more to say about "Lincoln," honestly. I came away feeling profoundly unmoved. The schmaltz of Spielberg didn't help, especially during the painfully bad opening scene where two soldiers recite The Gettysburg Address back at Lincoln, and the ridiculous closing shot featuring Lincoln superimposed over a flame in a lantern (SYMBOLISM!) which looked straight out of an early 90's sitcom.
There's also the scene right before the Senate vote on the 13th Amendment which has a group of black folk walk into the balcony to be seated. Everyone instantly goes mute, stops what they are doing like they have "black radar" and stares at them. Then one of the senators slowly stands and says with great gravity "We welcome you here" like they're the first black people to set foot in the building. Because apparently Mary Todd Lincoln's servant didn't count even though she was there all the freaking time. But whatever. Everyone gets to slowly nod in approval. That's what's important.
I don't hate Spielberg. I just hate Spielberg's cheese. But since his movies are jammed full of it, it's difficult for me to enjoy one. It bores me and makes me roll my eyes every 5 minutes. But whatever. It will win tons of Oscars. That's what's important.
I miss Bill Oberst Jr.
THE BOTTOM LINE - You know exactly what this movie is, even if you haven't seen it yet. It will do nothing to surprise you. If that's what you want, here you go. Daniel Day-Lewis fans will call it the best of the year and demand Best Actor, although they did that before they even saw the film. I personally found it boring.