There comes a point in every director’s career where they want professional recognition for what they perceive to be a stellar career. It’s called “Oscar chasing” and unfortunately plenty of great directors have fallen into the trap of trying to make films tailored to win an Academy Award. Martin Scorsese tried and failed, and failed and failed, until he decided “screw this” and made a genre film that happened to earn him one after being passed over any number of times. That was the crazy thing about The Departed; he remade a Japanese action film into a grandiose, almost operatic, crime film and wins an Oscar after being passed over for creating arguably the best film of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.
It was one of the great moments of Academy Awards history, of perhaps the finest director of his era winning an award he’d been passed over for any number of times, and he hasn’t been the first director to do so. And he isn’t the only one of his generation of directors to do so as well; he was the last one awarded an Oscar of a famed group that includes Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Steve Spielberg to come out of that era of film-making.
So it’s interesting to see Spielberg, he of two Oscar wins and one of the most profound influences in modern cinematic history, has resorted to trying to chase Oscars down after already wining two. Last year it was War Horse, a film that was tailored for the tastes of the Academy that fell flat on any number of levels, and now comes back with the Civil War version of that film with Lincoln. Focusing on the final months of the famed President’s life, including the end of that particular war and the amendment to end slavery which stands as one of his singularly greatest legislative achievements, the film isn’t a very good biopic in the traditional sense.
In fact it’s just grandiose myth-making, nothing more, and gives us no insight into one of history’s more intriguing Presidents.
To say that Lincoln mythologizes the President is an understatement; it takes history and reinterprets it to make Abraham Lincoln then into the man we view now. Lincoln in his time was quite controversial and many of his signature moments, including the Gettysburg address, are viewed in a much different light than they are now. The film is written as if the perception and his big moments were perceived in his time in the same way we perceive them now. This is Spielberg trying to rewrite history to fit a narrative as opposed to trying to tell an honest story.
This is a film that is trying to justify Lincoln’s place on Mt. Rushmore by rewriting his story as opposed to telling it truthfully, warts and all, and arguing that his accomplishments justify his place. Bad history generally tends to make for bad films and this is another in a long line of films based on historical fact that dumb people are going to think are good. If it wasn’t for the historical aspect being obnoxious it’s the film’s deliberate, “give me an Oscar” style pandering.
This isn’t a film that has anything resembling a clear, detailed character for Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis is essentially given a series of moments that look good in an acting reel labeled “for your consideration” as opposed to giving him something substantial. The film is supposed to look at Lincoln as he tries to balance out his wanting to end the Civil War with his desire to end slavery when people in both his party and his government have varying opinions on it. It’s supposed to be a look as Lincoln plays the political game but ultimately comes off as a Civil War era C-Span meshed with the worst of Aaron Sorkin’s tendencies. And at over two and a half hours in running time it’s about 60 minutes worth of filler that isn’t necessary.
The film does have a brilliant, almost film-saving performance from Day-Lewis in the lead. Day-Lewis has the sort of gravitas that few modern leading have; he even looks like Lincoln and has a similar stature as the man. He’s naturally a taller man than most of the cast, as well, and it lends to the awe-inspiring stature Lincoln actually had. Day-Lewis has such a gravitas in the role that it elevates the film considerably. It’s not quite up to his more epic performances but Day-Lewis has set such a high bar in terms of quality that a very good Day-Lewis performance would be the performance of a lifetime for plenty of actors.
Throw in a handful of solid but unremarkable performance from any number of established veteran actors and you have a film that people are going to automatically presume is good because of who’s attached to it. Lincoln without the Spielberg name attached would be seen rightfully as deliberate Oscar pandering on the lines of a generic Holocaust film like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas was in 2008. It’s just sad to see Steven Spielberg go down that same route after he crafted one of 2011’s best films (The Adventures of Tintin) almost by accident alongside one of its more overrated ones (War Horse). Unfortunately in 2012 there isn’t another Spielberg film to make this one look even worse by comparison.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Tony Kushner based off the novel “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Notable Cast:Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes