Friday, 1 February 2013

Review: Lincoln

Year: 2012 (UK Release 2013)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon Levitt, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes

Synopsis is here

With its 12 nominations hanging gracefully around its neck, I feel an unusual sense of entitlement to Lincoln, even if it's it's just my scatterbrained thoughts thinking it.  If Django Unchained; with its blaxploitation leanings and myth making fantasy  is the graphic novel of slavery, then Lincoln is the essay. Tarrantino may proclaim his filmmaking as non-political, but it's clear that he no fool. The sight of hip-hop's most enigmatic rebel, 2Pac (posthumously teaming up with James Brown no less) on the films soundtrack, and the near casting of one Will Smith may say different to a certain few. Lincoln on the other hand is not only about the 16th president of the United States but focuses on one of his biggest political achievements: The passing of the 13th amendment, and the abolishment of slavery.

Lee was quickly question about his view on the sandbox orgy of violence and revenge and yet no one appear to be as forthcoming to Lee's views on Spielberg's Lincoln. I feel it's safe to say that due to the two film-makers past, the desire for a heated reaction seems to be the purpose as opposed to any real conversation about the material at hand. Yet Spielberg has managed to place forth a film full of political posturing which asks for a certain amount of reverence about its subject and subtext with apparently little issue.

Django may not be a biting political critique on black slavery, but it's certainly more interested in race in the frame. Lincoln for all its congressional hearings and the like, spends what could be seen as a minimal time with black faces. Yes, the film is called Lincoln, and a powerful performance from Daniel Day-Lewis reminds us not only of the actor’s skill and talent, but the human touch that made the president the icon he became. Despite this we only gain three noteworthy moments of interaction with Afro-Americans. The first two are amongst the strongest scenes in the film, while the last (a climatic reveal) is awkward at best. The opening scene in which a young black solider ponders upon the future to Lincoln is a simple yet effective moment which boils down the very reason why the amendment should be passed. A later scene in which Lincoln and his now free house maid reflect on what lies ahead, also re-enforces such importance. These scenes; broad as they are hold the type of emotional weight that Spielberg is known for, making it a pity that through the more restrained eye of Lincoln such moments are few and far between.

That said, Spielberg does republican politics a better favour than Fox news, with many scenes deftly passing forth the massage that while democracy can be a dirty and difficult game, progression is not a dirty word. Lincoln is quick to alert that the tensions of old are not a thing of the past and the aggressive political standings seen right now, will only leave the country in more turmoil. Day-Lewis' performance drives home the human element that seems to be lacking with the politicians we see today. Others have been sniffy with Lincoln's grandfather-like meandering tales, yet without them the film would lose the humility we need to connect with him as a character. It also cuts through some of the pomp and bluster of some of the films dryer moments.

Daniel Day Lewis' performance is a striking one, yet it does little to elevate the weightless family side plot that runs alongside the politics. Supposed emotional scenes with Joseph Gordon Levitt and Sally Field are weak and do little to bring everything to the head. It's odd to see a Spielberg movie have such an awkward footing when it focuses on family aspects, yet this is a more restrained Spielberg feature which dances around some of his more typical sentiments with a certain shyness. Unlike many; I tend to warm to those moments usually due to the earnestness that they are approached with. In Lincoln however, it's just the facts with less of the blacks and of course the people have been quick to remark on the accuracy

Still; Spielberg (with Day Lewis in tow) manages to bring a board sense of decency and gravitas to many moments of the film.Also; while the film lacks a certain grace in it's closing segments (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter deals with the inevitable outcome with a little more subtly),  Spielberg still remains a man to go to for visual wit. The sight of James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes blundering around the place like 18th century stooges is a winning one. As is Tommy Lee Jones who is bullish form. Such scenes do not outstay their welcome. 

Said moments however are diamonds in the rough of a film, that weaves in and out of important and impotence. Turgid family sequences clash with intriguing political discourse. Stand out displays, slap against struggling performances. Racial politics are the mainstay of the movie, yet the people don't seem to matter as much as the reasoning. Lincoln will serve history teachers well in the long run with its calm and sensible depiction. Django on the other hand, gives us a outlandish superhero amidst the cinematic landscape of comic book adaptations. The restraint and awards may do a lot of favours for Lincoln, yet when it comes to race in the frame Django's hip hop stylings may build a stronger connection over similar material.