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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 13.64%
Just Average: 9.09%
Pretty Crappy: 31.82%
Sucks: 9.09%

2 reviews, 10 user ratings

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by Peter Sobczynski

"a.k.a 1865"
2 stars

On the one hand, the idea of Steven Spielberg doing a film on the subject of Abraham Lincoln seems like a perfect combination of filmmaker and subject--the life and work of the 16th President is a topic ripe for cinematic treatment and in Spielberg, it would be in the hands of a filmmaker with the rare combination of behind-the-scenes pull, technical finesse and interest in the historical record to properly pull off such a project. On the other hand, a film on Lincoln also threatened to become the kind of overly self-serious project that would bring out Spielberg's worst and most decidedly gasbag tendencies as a filmmaker and the result would a stultifying and manipulative bore along the lines of such borderline unwatchable stumbles as "Amistad" or "War Horse." To my surprise, "Lincoln" is not the overly sentimental drag that I had steeled myself against but to my dismay, it does not prove itself to be much of anything else either. Conceptually fascinating but dramatically inert, watching it is like watching a diorama coming--barely--to life for 2 1/2 hours and while it does have its virtues, they are largely smothered under the weight of its own portentousness.

Instead of trying to chronicle Lincoln's entire life in only a couple of hours--an approach practically doomed to failure from the get-go--"Lincoln" instead focuses on the period of a few short weeks in early 1865 in which he pushed through the abolition of slavery via the ratification of the 13th Amendment. At the time, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), who had just been re-elected to the Presidency, was still mired in the middle of the Civil War and the mood of the country leaned more towards ending the conflict than in ending slavery. Faced with the choice between the two, advisers such as Secretary of State William Seward (David Straithairn) recommend that he dump the amendment, which had already failed to garner the necessary support once before, and concentrate on winning the war, lest he wind up losing everything instead.

However, Lincoln suspects that the current House of Representatives contains enough lame ducks who might be willing to vote for it knowing that they had nothing to lose and makes an aggressive push to get the necessary votes. Moreover, Lincoln isn't afraid to use all the perks and privileges of his office to get what he wants and, with the aid of a trio of vote-buyers (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson), he begins to pinpoint those most likely to flip and entices them with cushy job, presidential pardons and the like in exchange for their support. While this is going on behind-the-scenes, Republican firebrand Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) does battle on the floor of Congress against Democratic rivals like George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie) and Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) for the votes of people like George Zeaman (Michael Stuhlbarg), whose decision could tip the proceedings one way or another.

By choosing to focus on a nuts-and-bolts look at how even the most idealistic of political notions can be born out of backdoor wheeling and dealing instead of doing something more conventionally noble-minded, Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner (who previously collaborated on the uneven "Munich") have utilized an approach to the material that is admittedly ambitious but one that is not exactly the most audience-friendly take imaginable. This is interesting in an inside-baseball manner--especially if one is either a history buff or political junkie--and Spielberg and Kushner deserve credit for trying something other than the expected but from a dramatic standpoint, the gamble does not pay off as scene after scene just grinds along and matters are not helped much by the decision of Spielberg--that most overtly cinematic of filmmakers--to shoot practically the entire thing in the most overtly theatrical manner of his entire career; with the proscenium staging and a visual style so unapologetically dark at times that Clint Eastwood might have flicked on another light, watching it is akin to bearing witness to the most expensive waxworks imaginable. Towards the end, once the fight hits its final stage on the floor of Congress, the arch narrative and visual style finally begins to pay off in interesting ways but by that point, it is far too late to rouse viewers out of the stupor they have been lulled into over the previous two hours.

Perhaps recognizing the dramatic corner that they painted themselves into with the main narrative, Spielberg and Kushner do attempt to inspire more a more traditional emotional reaction from viewers through the B story involving Lincoln, the desire of oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon Lincoln) to drop out of Harvard in order to join the Union Army despite his father's wishes and the obvious anguish of mother Mary (Sally Field). This is all blatantly sentimental material and were it handled correctly, it could have gone a long way to dramatizing the human cost of the war and Lincoln's efforts to bring it to an end. However, these scenes are among the worst in the film in that they get in the way of the main purpose of the story without offering up anything interesting enough on their own to justify their existence. (These scenes all serve to underscore the point that Sally Field looks just a little bit too old for the part.) The film also tries to ease viewers in and out of the proceedings with moments meant to resonate emotionally instead of intellectually, but without going into any detail, they do not work. (IN one of the more frustrating flaws, Spielberg finds a perfectly good and strong image on which to conclude his story and then, as he has with so many of his endings in recent years, manages to bollix things up by letting them go on and on.)

Like the film that it highlights, the performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln is markedly different from what some may be expecting but it too also fails to catch fire. Based on previous depictions of Lincoln, one might reasonably expect an intense and brooding from Day-Lewis but the version we are given here is harder to pin down. For the most part, the Lincoln seen here is one who is burdened by the import of trying to simultaneously unite a divided country and right the terrible wrong that has divided it but he is depicted in much the way as Oskar Schindler was in "Schindler's List"--as a storyteller who used his powerful gift of gab to lure unsuspecting people to help him perform achievements that would have been impossible to pull off in other hands. Day-Lewis is okay from a technical standpoint but he never disappears into the character in the way that he has often done throughout his remarkable career. Yes, I know that he did tons of research and went to places like Springfield to study up on the real Lincoln and for all I know, he may have even designed and built his own stovepipe hat but for all the evident good that it did him, he could have just spent the afternoon at the Disney World Hall of Presidents with much noticeable difference. By comparison, Tommy Lee Jones is completely and utterly convincing as Thaddeus Stevens and the difference between what he and Day-Lewis do is striking--Day-Lewis is Acting throughout while Jones just becomes Stevens and the results are indeed thrilling to behold.

Look, I don't flat-out hate "Lincoln" by any means--of the recent string of historical dramas that he has whipped up in recent years, it is probably the most audacious and formally interesting since "Munich" and as the third part of his loose trilogy dealing with the history of slavery in America, it certain beats the dreadful likes of "The Color Purple" and "Amistad." However, because it deals with such a serious topic and because it is being presented to viewers with the kind of rigid solemnity of the kind that Stanley Kramer used to traffic in back in the day, there is an excellent chance that many people are going to be celebrating it because of its status as an Event than looking soberly at its actual accomplishments and failings. If they did, I have a feeling that many would have to admit that it is a curious misfire that feels like a lecture from an instructor who has all the information needed to educate or edify his or her students but no firm grasp on how to convey it in a manner entertaining enough to keep them interested in the material.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=24067&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/08/12 23:09:33
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User Comments

9/27/13 Derek Diercksmeier The most overrated movie of 2012, by far. 1 stars
9/14/13 Joe Smaltz The political correctness crap started 3 minutes in and I turned it off! Crap! 1 stars
5/19/13 Monday Morning Got insomnia? See this.Peter Sobczynsky hits to on thge head. 3 stars
4/20/13 mr.mike Sadly, I pretty much agree with Peter. 3 stars
2/17/13 The Big D A few factual errors (I have a PhD in History) but provides good topics for discussion. 4 stars
12/21/12 gc I was expecting more of a civil war movie,or a biography, this was niether! 2 stars
12/05/12 Emma McCauley Just awesome 5 stars
11/28/12 Bert Powerful, inspiring, moving & entertaining. 5 stars
11/20/12 Keith McDonough My major disagreement with the review is Day-Lewis, who I thought was great as he always is 4 stars
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  09-Nov-2012 (PG-13)
  DVD: 26-Mar-2013


  DVD: 26-Mar-2013

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