At the 1983 Oscars, a worthy but dull film containing a tremendous central performance won Best Picture over a vastly superior film that was bursting at the seams with the kind of imagination and brilliance that the Academy ought to have been rewarding. The film that won was Gandhi. The film that ought to have won was E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. Now thirty years later the director of E.T. had made a worthy but dull film with an amazing central performance that looks guaranteed to win Best Picture over other more deserving movies. The irony is amusing.
Much has been said in praise of Steven Spielberg’s “restrained” direction in Lincoln, but frankly I prefer my Spielberg unrestrained. Lincoln is a good film in exactly the same way that Gandhi is a good film. Appropriate adjectives would be stately, considered, mature, weighty, important, worthy, and at times dull.
Without Spielberg’s trademark directorial tics to enliven proceedings, we’re left to admire Tony Kushner’s screenplay, which focuses specifically on Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Spielberg’s usual collaborators are all present and correct – Kathleen Kennedy (producer), John Williams (music), Rick Carter (production design), Michael Kahn (editing) and Janusz Kaminski (cinematography). The latter’s work is particularly noteworthy, with 19th Century White House interiors brought to life in some beautiful compositions of dark brown bathed in sunlight.
It goes without saying that Daniel Day-Lewis is astonishing in the lead, but I would still rather the Oscar for Best Actor this year went to Joaquin Phoenix for his turn in The Master. A controversial preference perhaps, but there it is. The supporting cast features some very fine work from the likes of David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sally Field, and particularly Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens – whose journey from radicalism to necessary compromise forms the most interesting part of the film.
Speaking of which, there is the expected moral/spiritual food for thought (the nature of equality, seizing one’s moment in history) as well as some less expected (the afore-mentioned theme of compromise as a virtue). One subplot involving Lincoln trying to persuade his elder son not to enlist in the Civil War also provides a poignant and timely reminder of the cost of putting one’s money where one’s mouth is if purporting to be in favour of a so-called just war.
I would have preferred the film to end about two minutes earlier than it did at what would have been unquestionably a brilliant final shot (you’ll know it when you see it), but aside from that there is little to actually criticise. Lincoln is a very fine piece of work and no doubt a lot of people will admire it. But despite one or two moments of genuine dramatic fire, on the whole I found it worthy but dull.