The other evening my wife and I were browsing iTunes for something to watch, and we happened upon Lincoln, released in 2012, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis. I have to confess to not knowing a great deal about American history – at least, not in any detail – so I thought it would be interesting to watch from that perspective. And Daniel-Day Lewis can usually be relied upon to deliver a fine performance, so I thought it was a safe choice. Overall, I wasn’t disappointed.
I’ll give you three things I really liked about the film, followed by three things I didn’t like so much.
First, the things I liked:
1. The production design is top notch. Both indoor and outdoor environments ranging from bloody battlefields to the U.S. Capitol have been recreated with superb attention to detail, as have period costumes. The film is also beautifully shot and has a very immersive, atmospheric feel to it. It’s no surprise that it won an Oscar for best production design.
2. Daniel Day-Lewis gives another world class performance that is absolutely worthy of the Oscar he won for it. He’s one of those actors who seems to disappear into relative obscurity for a few years before bursting forth to surprise everyone with a dazzling performance. I thought he was brilliant as the charismatic but manipulative Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, but he is, if anything, even more impressive in Lincoln. He carries a calm authority that suffuses every scene, from private conversations with his wife to heated cabinet discussions. It’s easy to overuse superlatives when describing fine acting, but they are well deserved in this case. His performance is captivating, not to say mesmerising, conveying both Lincoln the man and Lincoln the great leader with consummate sensitivity and great depth. (It’s worth stating that the supporting cast is also very impressive, with compelling performances from a number of highly acclaimed actors, including Tommy Lee Jones.)
3. I enjoyed learning more about the American Civil War and Lincoln’s great achievement in abolishing slavery. As I said earlier, much of America’s history is only familiar to me in outline, so Lincoln was a good opportunity to gain a more in-depth understanding.
Now for three things I didn’t appreciate so much:
1. Lincoln is really about the abolition of slavery, rather than about Abraham Lincoln per se. As fascinating and important as the subject matter is, I felt I would have liked to gain deeper insight into Lincoln as a person – son, husband, father, friend and political leader. To me, it felt a bit like it was only called Lincoln because he happened to be the central character in the emancipation movement. Really, it could have been called Emancipation rather than Lincoln.
2. Brits like me often find US politics confusing. I recently watched the exclusive-to-Netflix US version of political thriller House of Cards, and found it tortuously complicated (the original British production starring the late Ian Richardson as the wily Francis Urquhart is, to my mind, far superior in just about every respect). I had the same feeling with Lincoln, albeit to a much lesser degree. Much of the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time is taken up with political scheming, portrayed in such fine detail that I felt it got bogged down in places. In my opinion, it would have been more satisfying to have been presented with a higher, broader view of the politics behind slavery rather than spending quite so much time in the nitty-gritty. Perhaps then there would have been more time to show a more rounded view of Abraham Lincoln himself.
3. I didn’t like the ending. Most potential viewers will (I hope!) know that Lincoln was assassinated while attending a theatre performance. For some reason that is absolutely beyond me, instead of showing the assassination itself, or even the theatre where it took place, the director opted instead to show Lincoln’s death being announced at a different theatre where his family was attending a different performance. I really can think of no good reason for this choice, which I felt left the viewer lacking closure and deprived of the opportunity to “witness” a key event in Lincoln’s life (namely, its end).
All in all, I’m glad I decided to watch Lincoln, as I feel the pros far outweigh the cons. However, it would have been an even more enjoyable and satisfying experience were it not for the final three points above.
I’ll leave you with the trailer: