To contrast the incredibly large legacy that Abraham Lincoln has on our country’s history, Steven Spielberg’s biopic about the signing of the emancipation proclamation is considerably small. Not only does the film focus on a small portion of Lincoln’s attributes to society, but also the screenplay and acting inhibit this film from becoming an epic retelling of a crucial historical landmark. This is not necessarily a bad thing; the limited timeframe of Lincoln’s political career presented in this film gives room for accentuated acting performances and intimacy between the characters. That being said, it is Spielberg himself that is unable to handle the smaller scale atmosphere required for this movie to thrive, and therefore causing Lincoln to lose its full potential as one of this year’s best.
Lincoln recounts the president’s effort to establish the Emancipation Proclamation that would eventually free all slaves in the United States, and aid in the ending of the thriving Civil War. Tension within the country continues to rise during his presidential term, and the president becomes deeply conflicted as whether to push forward his dedication to the signing of his proposed thirteenth amendment, or halt his insistence until the Congress seats are filled with mostly republican thinkers. Lincoln is both aided and harmed in his efforts to get his amendment passed by Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, who not only believes that slavery should be abolished, but that slaves should also have equal rights. Lincoln turns to Thaddeus in hopes that he can convince him to speak for just the abolishment of slavery, knowing that if Congress thinks the passing of the amendment will be the first step towards full equality for all blacks then the bill won’t be passed. Until his untimely death, Lincoln stands firmly behind his committed beliefs in order to repair the state of the country.
Despite the abundant historical opportunity available to create a film about one of our highest regarded presidents, Tony Kushner’s screenplay only covers a a few points on Lincoln’s timeline. The film is so small that it might have worked better as a play or live performance. Very few scene changes take place that could easily be mapped out on a stage, and the story is mostly told through dialogue. After all, Kushner is a renowned playwright capable of tackling large subjects for the stage as best exhibited in Angels in America, so Lincoln as a live performance only makes sense in my eyes when looking at who was chosen to write the screenplay. Kusher’s script combined with Spielberg’s directorial storytelling don’t fit together, and the uneven collaboration is the downfall of the film. While watching the movie, it is clear that Spielberg might not have been the man for the job. The film’s focus on emotionally raw dialogue sequences is compromised by Spielberg’s inability to successfully handle visually detailing intimate sequences necessary according to the screenplay. Often in this film, especially during tense exchanges between Lincoln and his family, the characters will be pouring their hearts out with the intensity and energy needed to evoke a reaction within the audience, but Spielberg takes us out of the moment due to a chosen camera angle that should only be meant for war sequences. In fact, little of what Spielberg is best at is incorporated into this film. From a director who famously spawned Hollywood classics such as E.T., Jurassic Park, and War of the Worlds, astounding landscapes and battlefront shots are neglected from this picture, leaving me to question what Spielberg wanted to accomplish with this film, or better yet, what he wanted to prove about himself. Lincoln’s content is nothing that we would typically expect from a director , giving him an opportunity to show that he is capable of telling a story without firing cannons or larger than life animatronics. Unfortunately, Lincoln further shows that intimacy is out of Spielberg’s natural element.
As everybody critic has mentioned, the primary reason to see Lincoln is for the performances, which I could not downplay even if my life depended on it. All three leads take this film by storm by fearlessly launching themselves into these historical figures both physically and emotionally. Daniel Day Lewis is the only man capable of portraying Abraham Lincoln. He does not only too closely physically resemble the president, but he is able to believably capture Lincoln’s intelligence and sincerity, as well as his inner conflicts such as his fears and weaknesses. While Daniel Day Lewis doesn’t offer anything new with this role, he revives the president from his grave to a shocking extent. This is why I firmly believe Lincoln would have been an unbelievably captivating and revolutionary play. The immediacy and presence of Daniel Day Lewis on stage would have sent shivers through any live audiences’ spines. Both Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones give rousing performances just as worthy of Academy nominations as Lewis, especially coming from stars that seemingly were on their way, if not already, out of the spotlight. Joseph Gordon Levitt supports as Lincoln’s son passionate about fighting in the war, but offers nothing to the film and distracts from the larger purpose of the story.
While I will always prefer imagining it in front of my eyes as opposed to on a screen, Lincoln successfully revitalizes a historically significant event in our history due to unbelievably crafted acting from the groundbreaking principles. Tony Kushner handles the biopic with both sensitivity and unabashed truthful storytelling, and keenly recounts Lincoln’s personal and societal pressures. However, the direction of Lincoln is less than satisfactory, and in some ways unacceptable from a director that is somewhat dubbed one of the best of our time. While Lincoln makes me grateful to live in a country founded by extraordinary figures, intellectual idealists, and courageous heroes, the film also has confirmed for me that Spielberg’s cinematic successes and visionary wit are just as much in the past as the subject of his most recent attempt.