Steven Spielberg’s latest opus is a look inside the inner workings of what many consider the greatest American President ever – Abraham Lincoln. The trailers and the advanced publicity on this movie are very misleading. If you walk into this movie expecting a sweeping autobiographical epic, then be prepared to be slightly disappointed. What Spielberg delivers is his version of Masterpiece Theater.
Spielberg’s Lincoln delivers a masterclass in acting, staging and the “dramatics” of the piece but it is missing something. Like Masterpiece Theater it feels more like a very competent product that should be loved but comes across as a bit too clinical and aloof. Spielberg gets out of the way and lets the story of Lincoln’s fight to abolish slavery unfold slowly and confidently.
The movie, based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, shows how important abolishing slavery was to Lincoln and the lengths he was willing to go to get it done. Not only was it immoral but he thought that by ending it the South would not have a reason to continue fighting if he took away their central reason for fighting. The real star of this isn’t Daniel Day-Lewis’ amazing portrayal of Lincoln (although this critic prefers a Lincoln who kill some Vamps), it is Tommy Lee Jones’ performance as Thaddeus Stevens.
While Lincoln was the cerebral assassin when it came to dealing with the Pro Slavery crowd. Stevens was the one who wore his passion and the Nation’s conscience on his sleeve. Jones’ delivery featured a quiet power that made you stand up and take notice of every word he uttered. Stevens, as portrayed in this movie, is the true hero of getting this amendment through the house.
Writers Goodwin and Tony Kushner really understood the nuance of language and how it worked back then. The movie is sprinkled with lots of copious quotes from Lincoln – almost too many. It sounded like Lincoln only spoke in flowery colloquialisms. The debates on the floor of the house and in Lincoln’s Cabinet were spirited and sounded authentic.
It is hard not to come away from this movie with a new found appreciation for the sport of Politics. The details of how it all works – the horse trading, the conflicts of party loyalty vs. conscience, etc. is on full display. Unlike today’s politicians he seemed like these guys whether they were pro or con were at least passionate in their positions.
This isn’t a typical Spielberg movie, John Williams’ score is largely muted throughout the movie, there are no sweeping camera shots and there are no cheesy “heart tugging let’s get a horse lose from barb wire” moments. The only Spielberg touch is the inclusion of Lincoln’s son to be the standard “cute” kid.
While everything in this movie is technically brilliant and is clearly one of the best movies of 2012 its just missing something – a soul. The last 10 minutes of the movie is where a connection was finally established in the movie’s “slow clap” moment.
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