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Dustin Putman

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Lincoln  (2012)
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Bruce McGill, Walton Goggins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Julie White, Adam Driver, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson, Gulliver McGrath, Elizabeth Marvel, Bill Camp, Joseph Cross, Gregory Itzin, S. Epatha Merkerson, Gloria Reuben, Dakin Matthews, Stephen Spinella, Jeremy Strong, Christopher Boyer, Wayne Duvall, David Oyelowo, Lukas Haaas, Dane DeHaan.
2012 – 149 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence and brief strong language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 5, 2012.
For all of the talented artists and craftspeople in front of and behind the camera, and for all of the wrongheaded decisions that were made bringing the project to fruition, "Lincoln" is easily the year's most disappointing film, a downright abysmal charade that manages to paint an uninformative, grade school-level portrait of the 16th President of the United States while casting a light of idolatry on the man, complexity and tough realism be damned. In no way, shape or form a biopic—truth be told, one could learn more hard facts about Honest Abe from watching "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"—the drab, stodgy chamber piece instead focuses entirely on the last four months of Lincoln's life, most specifically his drive to get a thirteen amendment passed in the House of Representatives to abolish slavery. Watching the film, which is so emotionally frigid it could chill a person clear to the bone, it is impossible to even entertain the vision of a filmmaker such as Steven Spielberg (2011's "War Horse") being behind the camera; amateurish on nearly every level—the actors look understandably stranded and listless, while the movie's visual scope roughly equates to a person looking through binoculars with the lens caps still on—the film more accurately resembles a low-budget indie made by a first-time director who not only shouldn't work in the profession again, but will be truly lucky just to find a distribution deal.

Based in small part (reportedly a page and a half's worth) on "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln" by Doris Kearns Goodwin, "Lincoln" narrows in on the months following the President's reelection, from January 1865 to his assassination death in April of that same year. With the Civil War pressing on, he turns his attention to the subject of abolitionism, a proposed amendment that he needs 2/3 of the vote in Congress to get passed. Famously, this achievement paved the way for the successful union of the North and South States, a process that had begun two years earlier with the Emancipation Proclamation, and ultimately the beginning of the end of the War. Passing for human interest drama, Abraham (Daniel Day-Lewis) and steadfast wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) have little to say to one another unless they're arguing over the death of their son, Willie, from three years earlier, or grappling with grown son Robert's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wishes to join the Union Army upon graduating from Harvard.

"Lincoln" would have been a great deal more worthwhile had it stuck to a fuller portrayal of the title man's life, but even if one accepts the picture's very limited time frame, the results are still a botch job. Screenwriter Tony Kushner (2005's "Munich") has seen his more conventional historical biography whittled down to an embarrassing shell of its former self, and director Steven Spielberg—clearly having an "off" year—has opted for reasons unknown to stage it like bad regional theatre. The opening scene, depicting a deadly battle where people are being shot and bayoneted without a sign of blood being shed, is the first harbinger of doom. It is followed by a presumably symbolic imagined conversation between Lincoln and a dutiful black soldier (David Oyelowo) that couldn't be more stilted, prefabricated and cornball if it literally ended in a food fight with balls of corn.

Once the story proper gets underway, the film improves none. Claustrophobic to the point of suffocation, a good eighty-five percent of the film takes place in dank and dour interiors during a time before electric power and, apparently, the sun did not shine through windows. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (2010's "How Do You Know") gives no breadth or splendor to the visuals, which, again, consist mostly of straight-ahead medium shots on soundstages that make the White House look like a place that desperately needs some refurbishing. Establishing shots are few and far between, never presenting a satisfying look at Washington, D.C. during this specific era; at this point, apologies must go to Robert Redford, whose 2010 drama "The Conspirator" was criticized for similar things, but now suddenly feels like an epic of aesthetic grandeur and cohesiveness in comparison. By the time an honest-to-goodness long shot of The White House and its grounds appears, the viewer is taken aback—not only at the sheer sight of it, but because it took Spielberg a good 100 minutes to think to do this.

Critics and awards members are destined to fall all over themselves praising Daniel Day-Lewis (2009's "Nine") for his uncanny turn as Abraham Lincoln, but consider what the actor might have been able to do had the material even come within a fraction of living up to the actor's capabilities. Virtually nothing of substance is learned about this iconic figure and virtually nothing is asked of Day-Lewis that some make-up artists and platform shoes couldn't do for him. Furthermore, because Lincoln's persona is seen as squeaky-clean here, the performer doesn't even get a chance to delve into his potential complications and flaws. Make no mistake that Day-Lewis does all he can with the role as written. Unfortunately, as written, he's wasted. As Mary Todd, Sally Field (2012's "The Amazing Spider-Man") brings a faithful inner strength to the First Lady as she waits for the spare line to read or look to deliver. The relationship between Abe and Mary is so poorly represented they might as well be mild acquaintances. In an overflowing ensemble where every actor deserves better, the two that stand out the most—and not in good ways—are Tommy Lee Jones (2012's "Hope Springs") as Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (2012's "Looper") as eldest son Robert Lincoln. Jones is most notable for wearing what looks to be the scalped ringlets of Shirley Temple's hair on his head, while Gordon-Levitt is so mishandled and bored, popping up here and there before disappearing for long stretches at a time, that he can literally be seen nodding off in the background of certain shots. One cannot blame Gordon-Levitt for wanting to work with someone of Spielberg's caliber, but the excellent and very wise young actor also cannot hide his discontent at material he plainly knows is below him.

In his voyage to render "Lincoln" as dispassionate an experience as conceivably possible, Steven Spielberg stands at a dramatic distance from his characters and their conflicts, even choosing to not film Lincoln's fateful assassination or the ensuing grief of his family and the nation. It's the perfect rotting cherry on top of a sundae that has seemingly melted, grown cobwebs, and built up an inch of dust on top of it. Edited with jagged fabric shears by Michael Kahn (2011's "The Adventures of Tintin"), the film carries with it no rhythm or momentum or rooting interest, let alone the vaguest idea of what makes the man in question tick; in their place are just a collection of flat-footed scenes that merely sit there, some more coherent than others, all of them as invigorating as watching paint dry. There is a sweeping, be-all, end-all drama to still be made about the U.S.'s 16th President. Perhaps the greatest betrayal of "Lincoln" is how far away from living up to this title it manages. Whatever happened on this woebegone project's way from idea to page to screen, one thing is certain: it's all gone disastrously wrong.
© 2012 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman