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Spielberg the Storyteller?

November 26, 2012

I feel sort of embarrassed to say this as the thing has gotten such euphoric reviews, but Steven Spielberg's new movie about Abraham Lincoln kinda left me cold. I exited the theatre over the weekend feeling like I didn't give much of a hoot about any of the characters and the film falls way short of its director's usual storytelling skills.

The biopic is most interesting for its performances, even though Tony Kushner's script doesn't make me care all that much about the characters.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones are particularly magnetic in the roles of, respectively, the Sixteenth President of the Unites States and Thaddeus Stevens, a powerful member of the House of Representatives and a radical Republican (back in the days when radical Republicans stood for things that could make a positive impact on the country as a whole, like anti-slavery laws, rather than the sorts of ideas that today's right wing wonks hold dear.)

This film version of Lincoln also tells a refreshing narrative which focuses not on the president's untimely death or small-town roots, as so many other biopics about Lincoln do, but rather on the thorny political wranglings surrounding the passing the Thirteenth Amendment -- the bill to end slavery. As such, the movie provides a welcome, in-depth insight into some of the main players involved in bringing about the amendment -- and opposing it, as well as the causes and effects of the historical event.

But Lincoln doesn't make for very compelling cinema. The narrative arc of Kushner's script feels stolid and there isn't a whole lot to hold on to for people who aren't well versed in American political history. In other words, it's quite easy to get confused and even bored with the focus on concepts rather than characters.

Finally, besides the extraordinarily visceral battle scene that opens the film and a few beautifully lit silhouette shots of Day-Lewis, the film isn't all that interesting to look at. The claustrophobic interiors of old wood and cold light are certainly atmospheric, but there's little in the way of visual variety.

PS On the subject of Day-Lewis' performance: I can't understand why people in the media are making such a fuss about the actor's accent and gait. I don't find the voice that Day-Lewis adopts to be particularly high. And the Lincoln in this film is captured during his Autumn years. So it stands to reason that his walk might be ambling and his frame a little stooped. I found Day-Lewis' personification of Lincoln to be nuanced and warm, but hardly weird.


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