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Lincoln': good acting, boring plot

Kevin Noonan | Monday, November 26, 2012

 

A lecture, even delivered by Abraham Lincoln himself, is still a lecture.

Steven Spielberg’s latest drama, “Lincoln,” plays out as a quickly moving, well-acted history lecture. It’s not that it’s not informative, or even an interesting story. It’s just boring.

The film centers on Abraham Lincoln shortly after the inauguration of his second term as president in 1865, covering the final four months of his life before his assassination in the Ford Theatre.

By this point in history, the Union and the Confederate states are deeply entrenched in the Civil War. Lincoln has already issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and is attempting to push an amendment through Congress permanently banning slavery from the United States. Lincoln’s main selling point is that once slavery is outlawed, the South will lose the will to fight and the war will end shortly afterward.

The President faces opposition on all sides. The Democrats in Congress are staunchly opposed to the idea of granting freedom to slaves, concerned that an influx of freed slaves will lead to job losses and other social destruction in the North.

Republicans in Congress are split into two camps: those who think the amendment doesn’t do enough and would like to see enfranchisement and other rights included, and those who believe the war can be ended more peacefully by negotiating with the rebels rather than passing the amendment.

Lincoln focuses his entire energy on the amendment, neglecting his wife and family, leading to internal strife in the White House that only adds to his stress.

The film sprints through its elements, giving the audience little time to process each individual event and leading to some confusion. At the same time, however, each scene feels like it’s taken straight out of a textbook, with more emphasis on historical accuracy than engrossing narrative.

While this is an admirable trait and a testament to Spielberg’s dedication to making historical films with true integrity, it does not always lead to the most exciting storylines.

The movie is based on the 2005 non-fiction tome “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The book is 944 pages long, which probably leads to the feeling that there was more depth to this story than was told on screen.

For all its shortcomings, however, the film is impeccably acted. Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln delivers a performance unlike any in recent history. It was impossible to see Day-Lewis on the screen under the makeup and lines ¾ there was simply Lincoln.

The performance is without a doubt the saving grace and defining monument of this film, taking it from a film about Lincoln to the definitive Lincoln film.

The rest of the ensemble delivers strong performances all around. Sally Field as Sally Field shines as Lincoln’s troubled and neglected wife Mary Todd, and their anxiety-filled relationship gives both vulnerability and humanity to the otherwise immortal figure that is Lincoln.

James Spader and Tommy Lee Jones, as political swindler William Bilbo and cantankerous radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, respectively, give the film much needed comic relief. Lee Jones particularly gives one of the better “cranky old man” displays of his career, and proves that he still has some fire left.

The sets and visuals of the film are also impressive. The film is believably set in the Civil War times, and seems completely organic instead of forced or silly.

The film is well made, and Day-Lewis will almost certainly be a top contender for a Best Actor Academy Award, but the story itself is less than exciting,

Contact Kevin Noonan at knoonan2@nd.edu