WARNING! Spoilers ahead. Yes, this is a historical piece, so you already basically know what happens, but included below is discussion on how the film handles certain plot elements and may spoil some of the suspense if you’ve yet to see the film. Read the first three paragraphs and the Verdict if you don’t want to engage with particulars. Avoid that last paragraph before the Verdict. You have been warned!
Lincoln is a beautiful, high minded, sprawling piece of cinema that is deeply indebted to the theatrical roots of the medium. In fact, it’s a little too sprawling and theatrical, but as soon as I saw the credits I understood why: it’s written by Tony Kushner, best known for the landmark play Angels in America. Now this in and of itself is hardly a bad thing. Kushner’s an immensely talented writer whose made forays into movies before. He wrote 2005’s Munich and his adaptation of Angels in America for the HBO miniseries was phenomenal.
So before I launch into discussing some issues, let me say that Lincoln is a good film. Not as great as I was hoping for, but it’s very good. Daniel Day Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sally Field are all very strong and the supporting cast is good. The lighting on the film is moody, stylish, and altogether pretty exemplary, and I actually found some similarities between director Steven Spielberg’s work here and his work on Saving Private Ryan, although the films themselves are very different.
But there are flaws, namely a slight lack of focus to the narrative and a tendency for scenes to grind to a halt as the godlike Lincoln launches off into some sort of story or speech.
There are really two main storylines going on in this film. One is that of Lincoln himself, is fairly biopic in nature, and is comprised of a number of smaller narrative arcs, but the other, which really steals the show when it’s the focus, is of the battle in the House of Representatives to ratify the 13th Amendment. These two main thrusts are related because the president wants, for a variety of reasons, to see the amendment ratified as soon as possible, but he’s largely absent from the action surrounding this fight. Instead, it’s his Secretary of State by way of some fellows unencumbered by the morality of bribing Congress for votes (with jobs for lame-duck members, not money) who are the chief agents for the president’s wishes. This rag-tag band is led by a certain Mr. W.N. Bilbo, played by James Spade. Oh yeah, Spader is fantastic, I forgot to mention that before. Anyhoo, this action centers around Representative Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, who is a hard-nosed, uncompromising abolitionist. I never knew congressional proceedings could be so enthralling, and I actually found Jones’s performance to be the best one of the film. We’ve seen him in similar roles before (picture his investigator from The Fugitive as a seventy-something congressman in the mid-19th century) but that doesn’t stop him from being perfect for it.
But this is where we really lose focus. This storyline probably constitutes about 40-50% of what occurs on screen, a high figure for what is essentially a “B” plot in which the main character plays almost no direct part, and includes the climax of the film. It’s a central enough plot that we rise appropriately with the climax, but Lincoln himself comes off as a footnote. That’s not to say he wasn’t instrumental in making it happen, but we see the climax through Representative Stevens’ eyes, and it deals more directly with a handful of secondarily important representatives we’ve come to know that the main character. It’s not a major failing because we’ve followed both this plot and Lincoln’s from the get-go, but it is a little strange in a film that’s entitled Lincoln and that otherwise deals with its titular figure on a very personal level.
Because we are very close to the president for the rest of the film. We see both his professional and personal interactions, and it was really enjoyable to see how often those worlds came crashing together, particularly with regard to his youngest son, Tad Lincoln. It reminded me a lot of The West Wing, actually, as both do a very good job of showing the difficulty of separating those two worlds in a space like the White House that is both home and office. That said, we never see the same humanizing vulnerability in President Lincoln that we did in President Bartlet. In part that’s due to a difference in character (here applying the double meaning of that word), and in part the length of television gives more opportunity to see all facets of a person. But in part it feels like the film’s insistence on maintaining what I’ll term the “aura of Lincoln.” Whenever Lincoln walks into a room, he is unequivocally the smartest and the most correct one there. This is actually where a lot of the noticeable theater influence crops up; Lincoln seems to be frequently soliloquizing. All motion in a room stops and people visibly hang on his every word, even when it’s minutia. And they do it again. And again. And…
I’m all for maintaining something of a heightened respect for on of the paragons of American history, but even in his weakest moments (which granted are still pretty powerful) I wanted more. The world never feels quite beyond his control despite the tedious nature of his grasp on many aspects of it.
And there are many aspects to his life which we follow. There are multiple political gambits and relationship with story arcs. There’s his relationship with his troubled wife and relationships with both of his sons. In part, even in majority, these are the stuff of great characterization. The problem comes in that we spend enough time with so many of them that they each start feeling narratively significant. This would be fine if the president were our only focus, but as we’ve already seen, there’s a whole other side to this film in which he plays a background role.
One final gripe with regard to the plot. Following the passage of the 13th Amendment we move on to the South’s surrender and to Lincoln’s assassination. It actually feels like a second climax; we’ve had one for Representative Stevens and the amendment vote (incidentally, the film may focus just a little too much on the slavery issue within the context of the Civil War – not to downplay the issue, but there were other causes and the film is a little heavy handed thematically) and we’ve even seen that story come to a conclusion. Now it seems we get a climax for the Lincoln storyline. Except that the president is absent once again. That’s right, Lincoln is absent from the depiction of his own assassination. We don’t see Lincoln when it happens. Instead, we see the news announced as Tad takes in a different play. Look, we all know how Lincoln’s story ends, but this feels like a cheap “gotcha!” moment. We see Lincoln leave the White House in grand dramatic fashion to go to the theater, then we come in on a play in progress only to discover, surprise! it’s the wrong show. The stage manager runs out and we see the event from Tad’s eyes. I wanted the suspense of the inevitable, and I think it would have worked even if (perhaps especially if) we never lay eyes on John Wilkes Booth. Let’s see the end of Lincoln’s story through Lincoln’s eyes.
The Verdict: 4 out of 5
Again, please don’t think Lincoln is a bad film. It’s not the best film of 2012, although I expect it’ll get an Oscar nomination and Spielberg will have a good shot at Best Director (not to mention Lewis, Jones, and Filed in their respective categories). It does a lot right, it just has some not wholly insignificant issues as well.