The first thing I asked my friends when we left Lincoln, the new bio-pic of our Civil War president, written by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg (together again after Munich, like Astaire and Rogers and Bogart and Bacall) is, “Why wasn’t Matthew McConaughey in the film; he’s been in every other movie this year, and every other actor in the world is in up there on the screen, so, what, he’s too good for Spielberg?” One friend suggested he was actually cast as John Wilkes Booth, but his part got cut. Another suggested they just couldn’t find a place for him to take off his shirt and bare his rear end. I don’t know, but I think TMZ should look into it.
In the 1930’s through 1950’s, during the height of the studio system, Lincoln is what would have been called a prestige picture, something that places like Warner Bros. and Paramount would produce not to make money, but to convince the public they didn’t just make escapist fare and trash that only appealed to the lowest common denominator (while winning Academy Awards). A prestige picture was made to earn the respect of the public and the critics (while winning Academy Awards). They were made so that Darryl F. Zanuck could point to it and say, “See, I do know art when I see it” (while winning Academy Awards). And if you’ve ever seen The Life of Emile Zola, Wilson, Gentlemen’s Agreement, Judgment at Nuremburg, you know what I’m talking about. You don’t see this as much from studios anymore, quite possibly because they no longer want your respect, they just want your money.
I’m sorry. I can’t say Lincoln is that good a movie. It’s often entertaining. The basic story is quite fascinating and an important piece of history. The acting is first rate. But it also has all the faults of a prestige picture, or the three S’s as I call them: solemn, self important and self aware that it’s good for you, like, you know, castor oil.
Tony Kushner’s screenplay is, if truth be told, a disappointment for me and possibly even the chief culprit here. Kushner is perhaps the greatest U.S. playwright today. He provided a dark and exciting screenplay for Munich, but this time round the dialog often felt flat, expository and on the nose (and stagy—at one point, Abe and Mary have an over the top argument that is acted and shot in such a way that I expected the act one curtain to descend at any moment). During the opening scene where Lincoln talks to two black soldiers and then two white soldiers, my heart sank. And I wasn't heartened when Mary Todd Lincoln describes a dream that Lincoln had, that of his on a boat heading to a shore, and attributes it, in a manner I would call stretching to say the least, as being about the 13th Amendment (most people would describe is a dream about death and made me think that someone needs to get a more up to date book on dream interpretation). Was it all going to be as clunky as this?
Well, no, not quite. At the same time, there is also some marvelous stuff here, some true wit and fun scenes (especially when Kushner pushes for contemporary parallels like lobbyists or an hysterical scene when Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens interacts with a Representative who is willing to change parties if it will save his job—sound familiar?). And there’s a powerful scene when Lincoln, fed up with everyone telling him why they can’t get enough votes to pass Obamacare (oops, sorry, I mean the 13th Amendment), he pounds his desk in fury and tells them to stop excusing themselves, but just get the damn thing passed. But at the same time, as the story focused more and more on finding the votes for the 13th Amendment, it also became more and more like Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776, but without the songs (and ponytails, as my friend said, to which I said, but with the same bad wigs).
It must also be admitted that Steven Spielberg’s direction rarely helps, but only seems to emphasize the artificiality of the proceedings, especially when he does things like have Lincoln roam a battlefield choked with dead bodies and all you think is, “how beautifully it’s all laid out”. The story also goes a scene too long and undercuts what could have been a more haunting ending. And the ending that is chosen doesn’t really work. It’s understandable that Kushner and Spielberg didn’t want to go for the same old, same old, but their choice here probably wasn’t any better.
And, yes, in spite of everything that may be wrong here, it’s almost impossible not to get teary eyed when the amendment passes. And it does make its goal: it has prestige coming out its whazoo.
And then there’s the acting. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Honest Abe and he is quite remarkable, there can be little dispute here. Tall, gangly and wearing the weight of the world on his shoulders (when he’s not wearing a shawl), he shuffles through the role as if he was to the White House born. But it must be said that it’s Jones who steals the movie with some of the cleverest line readings of his career (not always easy with the somewhat stilted dialog often provided the actors here). And other thespians like Sally Field and Joseph Gordon-Levitt more than earn their paycheck.
The remainder of the cast tends to hearken back to epics like The Greatest Story Ever Told, where you would go, “That’s Claude Raines, that’s Jose Ferrer, that’s Charlton Heston, that’s Shelly Winters” (well, if you’re my age, you would). At the same time, it’s a little different here because you’re more likely going, “Hey, it’s that geek from Breaking Bad, it’s that lieutenant from Law & Order, it’s that mobster from Boardwalk Empire, it’s that British guy who hung himself in Mad Men, and who is that soldier in the opening, I know who that is, just give me a sec, OMG, that’s Lukas Haas”. It’s easy to understand why so many known faces are in this epic. Like the actors in The Greatest Story Ever Told, they probably thought that if they were in a movie of such religious fervor, it would insure them a place in the afterlife. Of course, I don’t know what that portends for McConaughey, but not everybody can be one of the chosen, I suppose.