Dir. Steven Spielberg
(2012, PG-13, 149 minutes)

Lincoln is a film of great import that is very insistent about how important it is. It’s full of grandiose reverence, from the florid speeches in Tony Kushner‘s screenplay, to the heroic orchestrations of John Williams‘s score, to the loving close-ups by director Steven Spielberg. Unfortunately, the cumulative result is a tone that is often rather bloodless, lacking vigor, so respectful of its subject matter that its approach ends up feeling dry – instructional, occasionally interesting, more procedural than passionate.

The film follows the last months in the life of Abraham Lincoln, including the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Based partly on Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s biography Team of Rivals, the screenplay frames the story as a series of meetings, negotiations, congressional debates, and speeches — oh the speeches! Daniel Day-Lewis plays Lincoln, who often, whenever he reaches an impasse with his opponents or even his own cabinet, begins to tell a story, and by the time that story gets to its point, which is sometimes a long walk from the original subject of conversation, the conflict has been mollified.

Perhaps it is some great wisdom others are responding to in those scenes, or relief that he’s finished talking. To me they were repetitive, punctuating too many scenes, and eventually they feel self-conscious in the way they give Day-Lewis long dialogue passages to showcase not only how great Lincoln is, but how great he is as Lincoln. The film as a whole is too dependent on speeches to carry the story; they don’t compensate for the general lack of dramatic thrust.

Spielberg and Kushner previously worked together beautifully on Munich, which was a tough, unvarnished look at Middle East politics. This time around their styles don’t mesh as well. Kushner’s grandiloquence sits heavy on the film, and Spielberg doesn’t find quite the right pace or visual style for it. The dark-night-of-the-soul urgency of Munich worked better, or perhaps that was also, overall, a tighter screenplay.

The performances by the ensemble cast are mostly strong, though I often found the characters themselves lost behind the star-power and personae of the actors playing them. James Spader, for instance, has a memorable supporting role as political deal-maker W.N. Bilbo, but I was more distinctly aware of Spader than Bilbo. Tommy Lee Jones fares better as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, as does David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, but they also have the benefit of more screentime and more fully developed characters.

Ultimately, Lincoln is not a bad film, per se, but in telling the story of a man who aspired to so much in times of such adversity, it feels listless. One of the most important periods of American history feels like an elaborately costumed, handsomely shot, intensely acted segment on C-SPAN.

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