Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Review: "Lincoln" is More Accurate than Entertaining

Daniel Day Lewis

Now that director Steven Spielberg's Lincoln has been put out to wide release, it is an easy time to ponder just how much of a chance that it has at the Oscars this year. Is Daniel Day Lewis' portrayal of the president an enthralling, engaging performance worthy of leading him to a third Oscar win? Is Spielberg capable of adding another directorial statue to his resume? In many ways, Lincoln is an accurate, well filmed biopic of the beloved president. However, despite all of the glowing cinematography and great as usual Lewis performance, Lincoln just feels like another film about Abraham Lincoln.
I am aware that everything I am about to say will be against the grain. However, when coming out of Lincoln, I got the impression of the film being a little bit cold. I wasn't bored and in fact the two and a half hour tale was consistently fluid. Still, when you have Spielberg, whose eye for spectacle is often unmatched, and Lewis, whose acting pedigree is some of the best in the world, there is a certain expectation that maybe is impossible to meet. You want this complicated, behind the scenes tale of a man who revolutionized congress and made America better. All of this is made clear, though not entirely in an engaging way.

The notable problem for me is Lincoln himself. Lewis gives a fine performance. It is largely the fault of Tony Kushner (who was also nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay for Munich), who manages to get all of the fact down and create a distinct universe. However, his work to the Lincoln character isn't really that compelling. He comes across as a businessman and somewhat of a wisecrack that makes jokes. There are a few adrenaline fueled conversations, but Lincoln is subdued and never comes across as emotionally accessible. This becomes an issue, especially as it feels too self assured that Lincoln becomes the least interesting character in his own film.

It is when you start looking at the supporting cast (which is massive) that the story begins to make sense. Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln and manages to outshine Daniel Day Lewis with a role that actually requires range and something interesting to say. Her descent into madness is almost heart wrenching and her limited screen time adds for some engaging family drama. In fact, as important as the amendment that the story is based around was, it is more legal talk than engaging narrative. The family drama, which includes conflict with his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is far and away more interesting, as we finally see Lincoln as a human. The rest of the time he is subdued and reserved for a few inspirational quotes.

Tommy Lee Jones
The rest of the cast also gets plenty of time to shine, though none more than Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. The wig-wearing man who helped to make the amendment possible is an engaging character who manages to embody an interesting voice of hope. Also, there are fine performances by John Hawkes (who should be competing against Lewis with The Sessions), James Spader, and Hal Holbrook to name a few. The supporting cast all have personalities and embody the time with such ease that this movie should never have been about Lincoln. It should have been about the amendment.

I am also not too wild about the John Williams score, which manages to feel very patriotic, but never has a distinguished personality. It adds little emotional intensity to the story. There are no great moments when Lincoln speaks and the Williams score pushes it into an amazing level. In fact, there is argument that Spielberg put more emotion and energy into War Horse than this tale. The story comes across as facts given by good performances. Sadly, none of them have enough authenticity to be considered great. Daniel Day Lewis is great, but that is expected, and he has done better.

However, the cinematography by Janusz Kaminski is gorgeous and well worth the nomination. Almost every shot of the film has an artistic beauty to it. Along with great costume work by Joanna Johnston, this film feels authentic and deserves all of the costume nominations that it can receive. It may not be nearly as creative as Cloud Atlas, but I believe that Lincoln's greatest achievement is at least looking like it is an accurate portrayal.

While I am fine with Daniel Day Lewis getting an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, I am not sure that he deserves to win. This is a fine performance, but not one that is as engaging as Hawkes in The Sessions or even Joaquin Phoenix in The Master. Those roles may not be done as acclaimed actors as Lewis, but they have emotional complexity that Lincoln lacks and makes for some of the more authentic performances this year. With this said, Lincoln may get a Best Picture nomination simply because it is Spielberg and there are 1-10 available slots, but it doesn't deserve to win because it is just an apt film and doesn't reflect the many amazing achievements in cinema this year.

It is also problematic to see Spielberg getting a Best Director nomination. This is arguably less showy than even War Horse and very little of his technique seems revolutionary. I argue save those slots for more deserving directors, including Ben Affleck for Argo, Ang Lee for Life of Pi and Paul Thomas Anderson for The Master. Spielberg is a big enough juggernaut that he doesn't need that nomination. He did a fine job, but Lincoln's success was not based on direction. It was based on the looks and feel.

Sally Field
I will fully support Sally Field for an Oscar nomination, as I felt she was one of the main reasons that the film was good. In a Best Supporting Actress field that is a little empty this year, Field is deserving of a slot. It is still too early to determine if she can beat Anne Hathaway for Les Miserables, but she should be a strong front runner. Also, Tommy Lee Jones is equally deserving of a Best Supporting Actor nomination, though I doubt that he will beat Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master. In a sense, Lincoln's best chances at the Oscars this year are all supporting actors and costume. 

John Williams, as beloved as he is, doesn't deserve a nomination. His work isn't terrible, but in a year when great scores for Cloud Atlas, The Master, and Anna Karenina are advancing the genre into interesting weird directions, Williams' music just lacks energy. Of course, since he got double nominations last year, there is little to doubt that he will get Lincoln into the Best Original Score category without too much fuss.

While I may be alone on this, I don't think that Lincoln should be considered a front runner in any category this year. It is a fine achievement in cinematography and costumes, but little else really grabs you. The script by Tony Kushner has a few inspirational quotes and lines, but is probably one of the bigger detriments against the film. Lincoln is an apt film, but it isn't one of the year's best examples of what made cinema great in 2012. This is especially notable when you consider the competition: The Master, Les Miserables, and even Life of Pi. All of these films show artistic merit in grand and new ways. The one advantage is that Spielberg is beloved enough to get anything he does nominated. I am sure that whatever it gets nominated for will probably not win.

Am I wrong? Is Lincoln one of the surprise hits of the year? Is Daniel Day Lewis really giving a career best performance? Is Sally Field really the best shot the movie has at an Oscar? Is John Williams' score just not ringing true to me?

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