Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’: Flawed but worthwhile Oscar bait

Film review

FILE - This undated publicity photo released by DreamWorks and Twentieth Century Fox shows, Daniel Day-Lewis, center rear, as Abraham Lincoln, in a scene from the film, "Lincoln."  Day-Lewis, who plays the 16th president in Steven Spielberg's epic film biography “Lincoln,” settled on a higher, softer voice, saying it's more true to descriptions of how the man actually spoke. “Lincoln” opened in limited release Nov. 9, 2012, and expands nationwide Friday, Nov. 16. (AP Photo/DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox, David James, File)

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln talks strategy in regards to passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in Steven Spielberg’s fairly wonky and occasionally sappy but worthwhile “Lincoln.”

Steven Spielberg’s grand, sweeping, gimme-some-Oscars-already epic “Lincoln” starts with a schmaltzy scene and ends with a rather yawn-inducing, anti-climactic one, but between these two disappointing bookends is a film that’s worth watching despite its flaws.

Even though history no doubt has sainted him, or at least sanitized him, Abraham Lincoln probably was our most important president, and Spielberg’s and playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s Lincoln steps off of the pedestal now and then to get his hands dirty in the business of politics, and even utters the word “shit.”

Mostly, though, Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln delivers biblical-sounding language that, I surmise, your typical American moviegoer (who has some degree of poverty of language) often won’t even bother to try to comprehend.

Still, the anecdotes and parables that Day-Lewis’ Lincoln frequently tells, even during times of high crisis, are spellbinding, and Day-Lewis (whose win for Best Actor virtually is assured) nails it perhaps especially in these scenes.

Sally Field does a competent enough if not wholly convincing job as Mary Todd Lincoln, whose speech, strangely, sounds like today’s modern American English while her husband’s speech sounds literary.

I didn’t find the back-and-forth, woe-is-me dynamic of a misery competition between Mary Todd and her husband to be very interesting or insightful, but to be mostly repetitive, but the scene in which Field’s Mary Todd lets some congressmen who are visiting her home (the White House, of course) know who’s boss is one the film’s best and most memorable scenes.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt — who, as I have noted, I love — is a bit dull and therefore wasted as Robert Todd Lincoln, Mary Todd’s and Abraham’s eldest son, who comes off as a one-trick pony, primarily only whining about how much he wants to join the army and fight for the North.

Tommy Lee Jones steals the show as U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, portrayed as a “radical,” fervent abolitionist. (The last, pleasantly surprising scene with Jones in the privacy of his home probably should have been the last scene of the film.)

The floor fights in the U.S. House of Representatives over the proposed passage of the Thirteen Amendment (prohibiting slavery everywhere in the nation) provide most of the film’s drama, and if they are at all historically accurate, they make one long for the days when there was a lot more passion (and a lot less money to both parties from the same donors) in the House.

The Southerners (and their sympathizers) in “Lincoln” aren’t portrayed flatteringly, which probably will mean that the film won’t appeal to the “tea-party” dipshits, since the slavery- and treason-loving Southerners depicted in “Lincoln” are their true founding fathers, but perhaps “Lincoln’s” No. 1 flaw is the creepy feeling that one gets while watching it that the overriding spirit of the film is a bunch of whites repeatedly patting themselves on the back, repeatedly reminding us, “See!?!? We ended slavery!”

Indeed, the evil of slavery itself is barely portrayed in “Lincoln” — sure, Spielberg portrayed it in his 1997 film “Amistad,” but that’s a different film — and blacks are only supporting (and mostly subservient) characters in “Lincoln,” which gives the viewer of “Lincoln” the unfortunate impression that perhaps the film is asserting that slavery was more of a burden for liberal whites than it was for the actual slaves.

Unless Spielberg and Kushner meant that to be a commentary on today’s Democratic Party and its relationship to the suffering masses of today — and I don’t think that they did — that is, in my book, enough of a flaw in “Lincoln” (coupled with its dismal opening and closing scenes) to knock it outside of the realm of an “A.”

I had hoped that Spielberg’s “Lincoln” would be “War Horse” meets Abraham Lincoln — I thought (and still think) that Spielberg’s 2011 film “War Horse” got screwed at the Oscars — but alas, it was not to be.

The Academy of  Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which is chock full o’ guilty white liberals), however, most likely handsomely will reward “Lincoln” nonetheless.

My grade: B+

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