Civil War re-enactors baffle me. My apologies if this is how you pass the time. These dedicated students of history gather on infamous American battlefields – from Antietam to Gettysburg – to painstakingly duplicate the bloodiest campaigns of the era. Their passion is unquestioned; their attention to detail exquisite. But re-enactors are slaves to history (pardon the pun). Results are pre-determined, so suspense levels are negligible. At the end of a recreation, attendees likely can sit back and decree, “Yep. That’s probably how it looked as it happened.”
The same feeling of empty contentment will wash over you as you endure Steven Spielberg’s accurate but tragically inert Lincoln. An incredible amount of attention has been paid to the superficial appearances of the historical drama. Musty costumes, earthy sets and stilted, verbal cadences mastered by a string of all-star character actors dexterously construct Abraham Lincoln’s finals months in office (and on this planet). But Spielberg’s window into the sincere motivations of our nation’s 16th president – namely, the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution – is stripped of all tension by the existence of historical fact.
Basically, the actual passage of an amendment that abolishes slavery is very exciting. The race to secure enough votes to pass an amendment that we already know is going to pass is not.
And yet, that’s the driving force behind Tony Kushner’s Lincoln screenplay, derived from the historical reporting of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Early on in his second term, with the Civil War raging, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) decides to use his political clout to eliminate slavery through the “rat’s nest” that is the House of Representatives. Everyone in his immediate circle – from Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to distractedly supportive spouse Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) – warn “The Great Emancipator” that it’s a mistake. End the war first; eliminate the blemish of slavery after. But Lincoln’s convinced that the right move is to procure the 20 Democratic votes needed to supply a majority in the House, deciding the fate of slaves in the government, and not on a battlefield.
Kushner’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. Goodwin’s a Pulitzer Prize winner. Spielberg’s an Oscar winner. Criticizing their execution feels as ludicrous as it sounds. And yet, Lincoln plays like a two-hour speech, a solemn slog to a foregone conclusion, a dreary march to the inevitable. Assuming the tone of an academic talking down to his or her students, Lincoln foists every single long-winded passage of Kushner’s screenplay on a pedestal of reverential importance. When each line of dialogue is delivered as if it were The Most Important Thing Ever Spoken (capped for emphasis), it becomes tiresome separating the vital from the gaseous.
Even the stunning transformation by Day-Lewis into Lincoln, while mesmerizing, isn’t enough to rescue Spielberg’s misguided drama from the dry, bony clutches of mediocrity. The actor’s unrecognizable as he disappears, once again, into his articulate and compassionate portrayal of a conflicted leader at odds with his constituents. And Lincoln only comes alive on the rare occasions that Day-Lewis is able to express, with convincing fervor, Lincoln’s desire to heal his torn and tattered Union. The fire-and-brimstone acting’s largely reserved for the congressional scenes, where a near-comical amount of mustachioed thespians debate the fate of an amendment we know won’t fail. Day-Lewis's performance, on the other hand, is best described as internal and subdued, with the president often striking a pensive, solemn stance as he weighs the intellectual and emotional ramifications of his difficult decisions.
Lincoln didn’t have to be this way. Ben Affleck’s Argo, also in theaters, similarly tackled an historical milestone centered around a pre-determined outcome and still found plenty of ways to spice up the journey. Spielberg, instead, falls into too many of the melodramatic habits that can plague his reverential history lessons, from Amistad to The Color Purple. Lincoln is an admirable history lesson, but a disappointing movie. Hopefully “Honest” Abe can appreciate my candor.