On a flight from Zürich to San Francisco, I decided to take it upon myself to use some of the twelve hours of leisure the airplane assured me to investigate some of the Oscar-fodder immediately following the completion of the Oscars. I start with this as full disclosure – often an airplane can alter the way one perceives a film (don’t make the mistake of watching City of God on a plane! Good Lord); but whether it made me more critical, or gave me more time to think, that is up to the reader.
One good word with which I shall commence the actual review portion of this review: “Melodrama”. The film seems unsure of what it wants to be or say, except patriotic and glorifying Lincoln’s role in the creation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The performances are all made with the typical Hollywood formula of melodramatic beats, which is, in the Hollywood mindset, considered to be the standard dramatic formula. I must contend that this ventures into melodrama of the most shallow kind.
“Melodrama”, as opposed to simply “drama”, is exaggeration of a plot and characters in order to appeal to emotions; “drama” is merely any type of fiction which is performed. The typical Hollywood style of melodrama which Lincoln follows is devoid of depth and any sort of real human experience. The predictable character changes (“Characters must change!” says the Hollywood screenwriter, no matter how artificial that change may be) are made in due accordance with the whims of the oh-so-great and magnanimous Mr. Lincoln, the only semi-multidimensional being in the late 1800’s. The editing is in accordance with this formula as well (“Establishing shot! Close up! Close up! Closing shot!” says the Hollywood editor, completely misunderstanding the potential of the edit and the shot), with little emotional variance unless it’s to nail in your head the emotional intensity you should feel from the scene, punctuated by the emotionally oppressive overhead score.
A prime example of this is the final speech by Thaddeus Stephens. The emotional cuts to courtroom reactions (such as to the young ex-slave girl listening attentively with the same hurt-puppy look on her face; she has absolutely no character other than to represent the guilt that the white man should have – not unlike every other black character in the film…), dramatic pauses, and music merely beat you to death with the emotions they want you to feel, rather than letting you feel the natural emotion and tension of the scene.
We are introduced to this film with a reminder that Spielberg once started a film with the 1944 D-Day invasion of France, except this time in the Civil War. Immediately following this brutal, detached look of the horror of war, we are led to two groups of Union soldiers, one black and one white, fawning over Lincoln, patriotically saying the entirety of his Gettysburg Address to him with patriotic music in the background; next we see him and his wife in a (uh-hum) melodramatic scene expositorally summing up everything you should know about the background. After this, the rest of the film involves the passing of the thirteenth amendment – and if only C-Span could be presented in such a suspenseful way!
A main problem is that the film seems unsure of what it wants to do with the topic except to provide melodrama. It cannot be called a character study or psychological portrait, as the main character isn’t really Lincoln but the bill, and, as far as I know, bills do not have psyches or characters; or, if you do consider Lincoln the main character, we don’t go deep enough into his character or personality to get a real sense of the man. The shallow attempts to understand his person, such as with the very weak sprinkling of his older son, the melodramatic encounters with his wife, the point-counterpoint-“I Always Win” encounters with every other character in the film; not only are these impeded from real impact by the melodramatic formula, but there isn’t enough focus on them. As such, the scenes never breathe, and thus are not treated with respect. Overall this renders the film, at its core, shallow and pointless.
The main positive point to the film is Daniel Day Lewis‘ performance, which is fantastic, as always. The second positive point also leads to a negative point – the lighting is really incredibly beautiful. However, this serves more as an impediment to the film itself. Everything, every aspect of the film and the sequencing, should be at the behest of the film overall; there is no formula that can properly allow a great film to be created.
One example of the cinematography being beautiful at the detriment of the scene is one of those obnoxious scenes with Lincoln and his older son, Robert. Lincoln takes his son to an army field hospital to scare him straight. Robert is whining and saying he wants to fight, and already went to one. Lincoln says that’s okay, let’s go anyway, and goes inside. Robert stays in the wagon, rebellious. A wheelbarrow rolls by, dripping blood. Robert gets up and follows it (who knows why; I don’t think Joseph Gordon-Levitt really understood his motivation given the acting), eventually seeing that they are throwing severed limbs into a giant pit.
As he is following the wheelbarrow, there is one particular shot of the sun in the sky, behind a church, with the silhouetted characters walking through. This shot is completely random in the sequence of shots, and was obviously only thrown in there because they thought it looked cool. In the end, it seems more like distraction due to lack of actual content.
Yet I did somehow finish it. Perhaps it was out of respect for Mr. Day-Lewis? Either way, I’d skip it. Mr. Spielberg, when will you consider film as an art form, not jut a method of capital?