Too Many Notes

Main Cast: Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones

Director: Steven Spielberg

I had high expectations.  With Spielberg at the helm and a total of five Best Acting Oscars amongst the primary cast, Lincoln seemed a sure bet for a superlative cinematic experience.  But despite some truly outstanding performances, I left the theater feeling disappointed.  I’ll try and tell you why.

But first, let me try and summarize the story.  It’s early 1865 and the outcome of the Civil War is becoming clear, despite continued belligerence on both sides.  President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and congressional abolitionists are concerned that without legislative action the slaves who were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 will be forced back into servitude once the war ends, as the proclamation was generally interpreted as only a temporary wartime measure.  A constitutional amendment abolishing slavery has already been passed by the Senate, but the votes for a two-thirds majority are going to be much harder to come by in the House of Representatives.  Controversy rages as to whether passing such an amendment will bring peace sooner or whether a “premature” peace will critically diminish the chance for the complete abolition of slavery.  Which is more important, peace or abolition?  This is the dilemma that faces the president, who decides that he must gather support and force the amendment through the House as quickly as possible and by any means necessary so that slavery can be officially outlawed before the war ends.  The movie reveals all the political machinations required to make this happen, focusing on the efforts of Reps. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and James Ashley (David Costabile) who play crucial roles in the amendment’s eventual passage.  As history buffs will know, Appomattox and Ford’s Theatre are less than three months away.

Not surprisingly, given the credentials of the cast, the acting is spectacular.  Day-Lewis may well have topped all his previous work with his spellbinding portrayal of the great man.  His voice, movement and passion are well worth the ticket price and whenever my attention wandered his reappearance on the screen brought it right back.  His multiple – humorously brief – speeches and his touching interactions with his wife (Sally Field) and sons Tad (Gulliver McGrath) and Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) were the best parts of the movie.  Field is perfectly cast in the thankless role of the much maligned Mrs. Lincoln, wonderfully balancing the woman’s fire and emotional vulnerability.

Spielberg’s work is equally impressive, creating a thoroughly believable period piece and including some shockingly realistic battle scenes.  His ability to hire the best cinematography, make up, wardrobe and set design people is repeatedly apparent.  He also gets the most out of his primary cast as I’ve mentioned, but the movie often drags a bit and doesn’t develop any sustained emotion until the very end.   The omnipresent John Williams provides a musical back drop that adequately supports the movie in his typical Williamsesque way, but is otherwise not memorable.

My biggest problem with the movies is Tony Kushner’s screenplay and storytelling.  I’ve appreciated his past work in Angels in America, but I really struggled this time.  As my brief plot outline indicates, the story is rather complicated and obviously there are dozens of other protagonists and villains involved who I haven’t even mentioned.  In addition, the movie would be incomplete if the personal aspects of the president’s life were left out, allowing us to appreciate his full humanity.   Furthermore, you need some time to display at least a few of Lincoln’s trademark meandering anecdotes, both because they’re interesting and they seem to be an intricate part of his personality.  Without a doubt, cramming all this into two and half hours of screen time is a daunting task – seems impossible to me – but that’s why I’m not a screenwriter.  Unfortunately, the first half of the movie is overly crammed with politicians and arguments among people who simply don’t get an adequate introduction.  I found it overwhelming and couldn’t even come close to keeping track of everyone, frequently wishing for large congressional name tags.  Once the movie gains focus in the second half, this problem abates, but by then my enthusiasm had waned considerably.  While some of the blame for this problem also lies with the directing and editing decisions, I think Kushner needed to find a better way to tell the story.

I’m not sure if my other problem is worthy, but here it is.  Movies – in particular period pieces – need to have a limit on the number of well-known actors in the cast.  I think that there is a threshold that’s reached where suspension of belief starts to falter.  I can handle pretending that Day-Lewis, Field and Jones are prominent figures in 19th century American history, but when you throw in the business manager from Mad Men, the nurse from ER, the drug chemist from Breaking Bad, the bad guy from Justified and some guy from Alphas in the mix my resolve starts to wear thin and it becomes increasingly distracting.  And trust me, the list could go on – I swear I even saw Will Ferrell in there at some point.  Maybe this is my problem and I just watch too much TV.  To be fair, I don’t really think that just because you’ve been on the cast of a successful TV show you shouldn’t get to act in movies, but there has to be a limit.  I’m sure there are plenty of talented out-of-work actors available to fill in the various small parts of even the most challenging epic.

In the end, Lincoln is a quality movie that’s worth seeing, given the importance of the topic and the stellar performances, but I think it could have been a lot better.  It can’t be easy being Steven Spielberg, always trying to live up to your past achievements, but this time I think he falls short.   Four out of five stars.

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