Didactic, shallow, and snore-inducing: Lincoln failed to impress JACKSON CAINES.
Take a profound, moving and influential slice of American history and put it in the safe hands of an established director like Steven Spielberg. Cast the performer of his generation in the lead role as one of the towering figures of the last two centuries. Focus on the nitty-gritty backroom politics which led to arguably the greatest legislative achievement of all time. What could go wrong?
Quite a lot, it seems. Especially when you’re shooting from a script as clunky and didactic as Tony Kushner’s, which I can only assume was created by dropping a history textbook in a vat of syrup. In Kushner’s civil war America, there are the good guys, who say things like ‘I hate slavery’, and the bad guys, who say things like ‘I am a prejudiced man’ – just in case the audience didn’t quite get that nuance of character. From the beginning, Spielberg hits us over the head with the ‘big issues’ the film purports to confront. The opening scene, involving a black soldier listing the injustices suffered by African-Americans, is redolent of a GCSE history lesson. Hasn’t Spielberg ever heard that timeless maxim, ‘show not tell’?
It looks great, of course. The interiors are shot in dignified painterly tones, while the outdoor scenes glory in atmospheric moments of lens flare. But this is to be expected from a Hollywood biopic. It’s really just a case of throwing money at a script which is dead on arrival – a tactic long cherished by Hollywood but not one that does the audience any favours. Spielberg seems to think there’s an untapped market of moviegoers whose dream cinematic experience is to watch a handful of bearded men talk about voting numbers and martial law for twenty minutes at a time while the camera barely moves an inch. I’m no detractor of ‘slow cinema’, but this plays like a slow-motion episode of The West Wing, with all the technical jargon left in and all the humanity left out.
Daniel Day-Lewis is not the problem here. He’s done his homework, as expected: the voice, the posture, the twinkle in the eye … he has no problem ticking all the requisite Oscar boxes. It’s a lousy film all the same. The female characters are lightly sketched, while John Williams is at his laziest with a painfully generic patriotic score, liberally sprinkled over key moments in order to heighten the emotional manipulation.
If this film is anything to go by, President Lincoln enjoyed nothing more than exasperating his colleagues with knowing anecdotes. Well, Abe, I’ve got an anecdote of my own: just when the congressional roll call was being called out – the fate of slavery hanging in the balance – the Arts Picturehouse audience was distracted by a tremendous snore emanating from the back of the theatre. I’d usually be horrified by such a crude breach of cinema etiquette, but this snorer had my full support. Maybe this film will appeal to American audiences. But if it does it’s only because they’ll be seduced by a patriotic moral righteousness, which, for 150 long minutes, masquerades as art.