I think by the end of the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Lincoln, when two civil war soldiers approach the 16th president and start quoting the Gettysberg address to him like a couple of fan boys…I think it pretty much summed up the movie I was in for: An annoying sap fest idolization of what many would consider America’s most respected president. That’s not to say that this film version of Lincoln doesn’t have good performances (Tommy Lee Jones especially was terrific), or that it’s not a well crafted movie (obviously that’s not the case, it’s a Spielberg film). But for the most part, it was a tedious borefest that left me cold.
I felt almost no emotional investment in Lincoln or what he was trying to accomplish in his quest to pass the 13 Amendment to abolish slavery. This is not the fault of Daniel Day Lewis, who puts on a great performance, but Lincoln himself acts completely distant from everyone else. We all know Lincoln was an intelligent man, but he always speaks in this kind of hi-brow poetic way whereas everyone around him is actually talking like a normal person. His stories and jokes that are supposed to add another dimension to his character wind up being tedious and extranious. They’re extranious because whenever he stops to tell some silly story, the movie grinds to a halt as well. There’s even a point where an official in the confrence room gets up infuriated about to “scream if I hear one more god-damn story from him!”. As an audience member, I have to say, yeah, I agree with him! For Lincoln, a guy who essentially had a poor upbringing and had very little education growing up, for him to put on this kind of heir of authority with everyone he talks to, even behind closed doors with his family and closest friends when he doesn’t need to put on a facade, it just comes off as false. Even if it is historically accurate to the kind of man Lincoln was, I still kept wondering half the time why everyone around him wanted to kiss his feet as opposed to some one close to his cabinet asking why this guy from the lower class didn’t just talk like everybody else!
There are gossipy side stories to dramatize his life more, such as his sometimes difficult relationship with his wife Mary Todd, and his completely distant relationship with his son (father/son issues in a Spielberg movie? What a shock!). But when it comes to the main plot regarding the passing of the 13 amendment bill, it’s not that different from waiting for the Titanic to hit the iceberg in the James Cameron film. The side drama is almost filler to the main event. And when the day comes for the Amendment to be passed, Speilberg’s building of tension is almost silly. I saw this movie with my buddy, who is African American, and during the passing of the bill sequence, he just leaned over to me and said, “gee, I wonder how this is going to turn out!” By the time the passing of the bill is all over, all that was left was for the audience to see how Spielberg would pull off Lincoln’s big death scene, which in itself was also laughable. Lincon says his last lines, which are the equivilent to “My work here is done.” CUT TO: INT. Ford Theater. My friend and I just cracked up.
Why was it even nessecary to play out his assasination? So Spielberg can dramatize the horror of Lincoln’s screaming child? His youngest son does a lot of cute shit we all expect from kids in a Spielberg movie, but we have zero investment in him. Even though we don’t actually see Lincoln being shot, the scenes showing him lying dead on the bed are just extranious, silly, and completely unnessecary, as if to point out the obvious to any kid who wasn’t paying attention in 2nd grade history. I just had an emotional disconnect from his death. If I actually gave a shit about Lincoln as a character, I’m sure Spielberg could have pulled off the most emotional portrayal of his assasination on film. But the whole thing is just empty.
In thinking about the film after, I talked with my friend about the film and why we both thought it didn’t work. I was just bored out of my mind, until things started to pick up a little with the Amendment passing. But I think we both came to the conclusion that one of the reasons we didn’t feel invested in the movie was that we never saw any of the persecution happening to the black slaves at that time. This movie could be compared easily to Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List, where Spielberg as a Jewish man was open and hard hitting to show the devestating persecution of his people during the Holocaust, making it one of the most powerful historical dramas ever made. Lincoln never comes close to that. Lincoln doesn’t feel like a celebration of the abolishment of slavery. In my opinion, it feels like a celebration of the white man, as if to point out to everyone that white Americans did something good to free oppressed black slaves from… ..um….themselves. I’m sure that sounds like a major slam against my own ethnicity, but seriously, if this was meant to be a compelling drama, why would Spielberg avoid showing the awful persecution African Americans by white men? He was fine showing Jews being slaugtered left and right in Schindler’s List. Why is it not okay to show the persecution of blacks, but were supposed to shed tears when Lincoln is riding on his horse through a battlefield full of dead white soldiers? You gotta ask yourself, who is this film really pandering to?
What’s funny was after the movie, we were walking out of the theater, and we both heard a 60+ year old caucasian woman behind us saying “That’s how it’s done! That’s powerful filmmaking!” To which I just kind of rolled my eyes. What’s really being said in this movie is in fact not said at all. If anything, this is a Lincoln movie for an older generation. I watched the Colbert Report last week. The whole week he interviewed all the old white fogies brought in who wrote the script as well as the researchers for the new Lincoln film. I kind of wonder if in some way Stephen Colbert was making an ironic statement about this film in doing this (Colbert: “SPOILER ALERT: It’s got a sad ending!”)
I think it’s about time Spielberg retired to make way for a new generation of filmmakers. Because the movies we all fell in love with from him, the films we grew up on…that energy he was once in tune with the masses is no longer there. I feel like now with his films he’s speaking in a voice that’s no longer applicable to today’s generation. I suppose some will argue at his age he’s not making films for younger generations, but with a movie like this it feels like he’s pandering to middle-aged/senior citizens still holding onto 1950’s American values. And if this movie were made by anyone other that Steven Spielberg, would audiences really have the same reaction to this movie? It seems like people are responding less to this film in regards its emotional depth, and that’s it’s more of a response to the reaffirmation of the white community…that we did good for the African Americans freeing them from slavery…and now we can pat ourselves on the back for our achievement. But the irony is that we know the oppression of African American’s doesn’t end there…it still lasted another 100 years until the civil rights movement. So what is the importance of the film Lincoln that we should invest ourselves in? What is the true statement Spielberg wanted to say about what Lincoln wanted to accomplish in freeing African Americans? It’s not just me who was asking this question, but my friend who was with me as well.
Spielberg used to be a master at grabbing hold of audiences emotions, but everything about this film is just telegraphed to us about how were supposed to feel, including John William’s score, which hit’s all the playful beats as well as the serious beats, right down to the rising emotional tempo when news hits of Lincoln’s death. You can just feel Spielberg desperatly trying to pull our strings and stir our emotions. I hate saying this, but all his tricks he used in this film are old hat now. His style has been tired for a good long while.
Like I said, if I had one good thing to say about this film, it’s Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, who gets the one emotional payoff that almost works if the movie had anything deeper to say about slavery to African Americans. The rest of the film was just a major disappointment. Spielberg’s vision just feels tired, and I don’t think we should expect any more of him from what he’s already given.