In the end, I just can’t forgive the flourishes. It’s the damned Spielbergian grandiosity that always manages to shoot him down. I can’t say that a film he’s directed in the last dozen years is out-and-out bad(okay, maybe 2004’s “The Terminal”). And he’s helmed at least one(2005’s “Munich”)that, at the very least, is near-great. But he always seems to shoot himself in the foot somehow. ALWAYS. I don’t know if it’s that he doesn’t trust his audience or that he doesn’t trust himself. Probably, a little of both. Or maybe he’s grown apathetic(or just plain arrogant)in that most critics will fall all over themselves to praise his bloated enterprises. I have a difficult time panning him, myself. After all, he is a master craftsman. He can frame a scene like no other. His talent has never been in question. But his waywardness and pomposity is always there. Ask yourself this—when was the last time Steven Spielberg directed an actor to an Academy Award-winning performance? Don’t bother googling, the answer is never. NEVER. Plenty of nominations, not one win. Is that a fluke? I don’t believe so. Has he even had a naturalistic performance from an actor in the last thirty years or so? Boy, do I appreciate the work of Roy Scheider in 1975’s “Jaws” more and more as the decades roll by. And he wasn’t even nominated for blowing up that shark. Spielberg mythologizes his lead actor performances to the nth degree. They are not human, they are god-like. When Daniel Day-Lewis is telling folksy tales, or even simply walking out of a room, the lighting is almost like a halo and the John Williams score swells—why not just let Abraham be a man? That’s what he was after all. Only the passage of a century and a half and iconic remembrance has made him a saint. And with an actor of DDL’S caliber, the opportunity for humanistic was there. And, obviously, with a performer as skilled as DDL, Spielberg has his best shot ever this year at breaking his nearly two-score acting jinx(Daniel is the Best Actor odds-on favorite). But I don’t know. I’ll still take Joaquin Phoenix of “The Master” over anyone else I’ve seen this year. Or why not John Hawkes for his horizontal, part iron lung-encased perf in “The Sessions”. Well, I’m not certain Phoenix will even be nominated. Too weird, they’ll say. And Hawkes isn’t in a BIG enough film. Strike those two and I don’t see any serious contenders. Bradley Cooper? Too young, too handsome and too soon. And besides, “Silver Linings Playbook”, for all the accolades, has yet to find an audience. So, the great Daniel Day-Lewis will most likely be the very first person to win an Oscar for acting in a Steven Spielberg movie. And when he’s good in it, he’s very very good. But that doesn’t mean he’s deserving. I find that people who have never acted on a stage or before a camera, almost unfailingly, to believe that impersonation is the highest form of the craft. I’ve got news for you—it’s not. As cited in my review of Meryl Streep in last year’s “The Iron Lady”—it’s mimicry. You’ve already got a base to work with, so the need to create from scratch is not there. And there are some extremely skilled actors that have relied on this, and managed to win the big kahuna. How often did you hear that Forest Whitaker became Idi Amin or Phillip Seymour Hoffman became Truman Capote or Jamie Foxx became Ray Charles. And that’s only the men, but it also represents three Best Actor wins in a row from 2004 through 2006. And it’s all bullshit. They didn’t become anyone. They simply skillfully mimicked a historical figure. Now granted, the less we have in evidence of a figure of history, the more difficult this is to do. And there is zero film and scant photographic archives concerning our 16th president. But his iconography is Christ-like. And DDL couldn’t break free of it. Right down to the inevitable crucifixion by way of bullet via John Wilkes Booth(thankfully unseen, and obviously, not a spoiler!).
I’m not going to focus much on “the plot” in this review, because that has been covered exhaustively elsewhere. Let’s just say that anyone expecting a straight biography of Honest Abe from this film called “Lincoln” will be sorely disappointed. This movie covers roughly one month—January of 1865. Now, having attended “A Civil War Christmas” off-Broadway just days before experiencing “Lincoln”, there was the overwhelming resonance of a continuing saga. The play I saw ended in December of 1864. Perfect timing for me, huh? So, “Lincoln” can’t be pre-occupied with covering any major portion of Lincoln’s life(I guess a film called “Ratification” wouldn’t have sold). I mean, Oliver Stone’s 1991 “JFK” really was only about the assassination of Kennedy, so there is certainly precedent. But I quibble(?). So, Lincoln and the Republicans(yes…they were the good guys in 1865)spend two plus hours trying to pass the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution. And that’s pretty much it. With a cornucopia of recognizable faces and award-winning actors in roles big, small and cameo. Sally Field, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley—they’ve all either won or been nominated for an Academy Award(boy—Steven’s really stacked the deck this time, huh). And they squabble, and they bargain, and they run around like chickens-without-heads—and it’s all a foregone conclusion as we all know circa 2012. It is gorgeously shot by Janusz Kaminski. It’s like a coffee table book, the stillness is so perfect. Tony Kushner’s script, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, is admirable. And there is some terrific acting and a few beautifully modulated scenes. I certainly wish there was a strong black character here that wasn’t treated like a saint. And I could’ve done without the minority soldier reciting the Gettysburg address verbatim in typical SS fashion(anyone believe that really happened?). And I could’ve used more real person interaction with son Tadd and wife Mary Todd(Ms. Field). Hey, I like the movie. But I’m certainly not going to scream from the rafters praising it. And I’m not going to kowtow to the casual moviegoers I’ve talked to who sound like they are proud of themselves for not being bored(or not admitting to it), while speaking in hushed tones(wow…”Lincoln”). And I’m not going to label Steven Spielberg’s latest “great” when he manages to fall short. A little closer this time, but still a miss. Again. Grade: B+