Lincoln (2012) – Movie Review

Steven Spielberg might be the most overrated director of all time.

Yes, he has a handful of good films like Jaws, Duel and the Indiana Jones movies, but those movies were good because they lacked pretension and were mostly decent B-films; this works in Spielberg’s favor because Spielberg, in his essence, is a child with a camera–while his action films work, his dramatic films do not for they present only a child’s idea of how a “serious” or “dramatic” film should work. His B-movies (or the movies he made that have little pretense toward being taken too seriously) mostly work because, in their core, are the things that excite kids the most; Spielberg was able to tap into his inner-child easily and bring its ideas of what good entertainment represents and create it with his good technical skills as a director and filmmaker. This combination make his blockbusters work because they are made well and genuinely appeal to the child within us all.

His dramatic films, while held in high-esteem, also represent what a child thinks of as “film” but the problem with this is that a child usually understands what elements are supposed to theoretically be in a film in order to be “serious” but don’t understand the subtle or complex foundations that make such elements function properly and give them meaning. In Lincoln, there’s the outburst Abraham Lincoln has in front of his cabinet. This is supposed to be a big “moment” in the film, but the reason why it doesn’t work is because there’s little depth to give such a “moment” meaning. A child knows that dramatic movies are filled with such “moments” but don’t truly understand the deeper reasoning behind them. Spielberg’s B-movies work because such films thrive on just “moments” alone with only shallow and functional character developments and arcs to make the audience care; there is little depth necessary, but in a good drama there needs to be something more than spectacle.

Despite all this critics and movie-goers are more than willing to give praise to mediocrities like Lincoln, a movie about the final months of the president’s life as he tries to help the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. Let me address some common myths about the film, perpetuated by both critics (who should really know better) and movie-goers:

1.) “See, Lincoln actually humanizes the guy which makes the movie more interesting! Because it has depth!”

Yes, Lincoln attempts to make Lincoln less of a symbol and more of a human by granting him flaws and allowing us to watch him make hard decisions, but note that I say attempts. Lincoln fails to capture the humanity of its subject due to both the script and Daniel-Day Lewis’s overrated performance. Despite the accolades, Lewis’s acting never rises above mimicry, the kind one can witness from most annoying Abraham Lincoln-impersonators. There are two modes he adheres to: either he is too hammy, or he offers little depth to his character; even in the more quiet scenes we’re not given much of an “in” to Lincoln other than basic motivations. What could have been a complex and compelling portrayal is whittled down to onscreen banality–but Lewis ain’t the only one that should be taking the blame; there’s both the script and Spielberg. For one thing, as mentioned before, Spielberg is a child and Lincoln is a child’s idea of what a historical drama should be materialized. The script is completely surface-level, lacking in both subtlety and insight. So, no, Lincoln, in Lincoln, never truly becomes human, but merely a shadow on the wall who has adopted the mannerisms of a human. Here’s another common claim by the apologists:

2.) “Lincoln shows Lincoln doing less-than-ethical things. This totally makes the movie more intriguing to watch and shows that Spielberg isn’t just interested in hagiography. It doesn’t play it safe.”

Okay, yes, the movie takes on a “riskier” approach to Lincoln, I guess, by depicting a different side to him, but that doesn’t automatically make the movie good. Here’s an excerpt from a review by “Dan the Man” taken from his blog:

“I think what really intrigued me the most about this flick was how it shows just how hard it was, and probably still is, to get a bill passed and all of the twists and turns that come along with that mission. Abe had to talk to a lot of people, had to plan out a lot of ideas in his head, had to win over a crap-load of people, and most of all, had to still keep it in his mind to do the right thing. It’s a very hard, especially in today’s day and age of politics, to not only do the right thing but also keep with that idea in your head and never mess-up on that. Abe never gets dirty with where he gets with his mission to abolish slavery, and it’s really fresh to see considering this is a guy that America still reveres to this day.”

Yes, the movie is about Lincoln’s attempts to get the amendment passed–that’s the plot; what makes a movie good or bad, however, is how it presents the plot, not merely what the plot is. Dan summarizes his opinion with thus:

“Consensus: Lincoln may take some people by surprise to how it plays-out, but if you can handle a bunch of talking, then it will definitely keep you watching from beginning-to-end with a spectacular lead performance from Daniel Day, and a message about doing the right thing, no matter who gets in the way that is still relevant today, especially in the world of politics.”

First off, Lewis’s performance is anything but “spectacular”; any Lincoln-impersonator could have given the same performance. Secondly, just because the message is nice doesn’t mean the movie is good.

Plus, does Lincoln actually do anything that would be considered “dirty”? Sure, he prolongs the war, but it was all to get the thirteenth amendment passed. If Spielberg really wanted to compel the audience by showing them a side of Lincoln not often depicted, then maybe he should have placed the movie just before the war, or in its early stages, when Lincoln allowed the suspension of habeas corpus for those who spoke-out against the Union. Now that would have made for an interesting drama as we get to witness Lincoln’s reasoning and dilemma, but no. See, Spielberg couldn’t have done that cause he likes to have his cake and eat it too. What I mean is, Spielberg gets credit for showing a “darker, more human side” to Lincoln without exerting the actual effort. See, Spielberg is a mediocre filmmaker, at best, who lacks any vision; he only knows how to deal within convention–that’s why the approach that he used is actually safe and ends up offering little insight to the titular subject.

3.) “The ending worked because it’s not about how Lincoln died, but his final days and what he accomplished within them.

Fuck no. That ending blew a big one. Let me show you: so the last scenes take place in a theater during a performance, setting up the expectation that we’re about to see Abraham Lincoln getting fucking shot in the head, but instead we see his young son then a man comes on stage and informs everyone that his father was assassinated in a different theater. Why? Why show this? Was the trite subversion necessary? If the movie is, as one claims, about Lincoln’s life, not his death, then why show this at all. One might argue that it was to show the son’s reaction (Lincoln was a father after all, not just a symbol!) This would be fine except it doesn’t work because we don’t see much of Lincoln’s relationship with his younger son with the exception of some bland scenes; as a result the audience neither understands or cares about the son’s reaction. After we see the dumb kid’s reaction we are then treated to some truly sublime imagery: a flame juxtaposed in the foreground with Lincoln’s corpse in the background, then after a few seconds a dissolve to Lincoln giving a speech. What an utterly hacky, schmaltzy way to end. Just, ugh!

Then there are some other scenes throughout that are especially irksome, like whenever Lincoln tells a story, usually to someone in a panic, or the hideous “comedy” scenes with the hackiest music that tells the audience that ha-ha this is funneh!

Here’s another attempt from “Dan the Man” in defending this film:

“This whole movie is filled with a supporting cast that will probably shock you by how many names it really does have and to be honest, there’s a bit of a problem with that. See, there are so many damn people in this movie that even though they are all so good with each and every one of their own, respective roles, it becomes a bit of a waste to see such good talent in roles that sometimes don’t show-up on-screen for any longer than 5 minutes. Having a huge, supporting cast is great if you want to make sure every character is well-done, and every performance is good but after awhile, it sort of starts to tick you off once you realize that half of these people can do some quality work in their own flicks, they just aren’t given the chance all that much. Still, it’s great to see such big names show up in a production together and show how much people still want to work with Spielberg.”

I kind of feel bad for picking on Dan (still) for he seems like a cool guy, but I feel his review in particular represents, what I think, is the problem with many reviewers, is that even when it seems like they’re going to start criticizing the thing they’re reviewing, they seem how twist back and offer another compliment; look at the first two sentences. I also take issue with  that last sentence as well. Of course they want to work with Spielberg and it’s not because he’s an “artistic genius”– it’s cause they like getting Oscars! Everyone knows that Spielberg movies are a fucking Oscar-factory because the Academy are usually made-up of either dumb apes or victims of blackmail. And no, the supporting cast isn’t all that memorable. Sally Fields? Meh, she’s okay and Tommy Lee Jones has some good scenes as Thaddeus Stevens (maybe the movie should have been about him?) as well as some ham-fisted ones. But also note the tone of Dan’s writing. This isn’t a guy that appears to be interested in giving an objective analysis of a film, but someone who’s a total fanboy. But the sad thing is a lot of the professional critics’ reviews aren’t a whole lot different, just a bit less blatant in their fanboyism. Seriously, is Spielberg’s dick that irresistible? Maybe I’m missing something…

Actually, let’s dwell on this a bit, no, not the fellatio, but online reviewers and bloggers in general. See, the only reason to read them is to get a perspective outside the mainstream, a perspective unfettered by a bias for oscar-bait and the conventional just because a certain names are attached. However, I’ve found out that most bloggers offer little different from most professional critics which is problematic considering that most “professionals” know very little of the field that they claim to have expertise of. This reminds me how members of certain online poetry communities despise “the System” yet turn around and endorse poems that are of similar ilk to those that are published in the lit-mags they claim to disdain.

This all leads me to why Spielberg is ever-so beloved: the average person says he that mainstream music is shit and pines for the music of the past for it had more “meaning,” yet they listen to garbage like The Eagles and Nickleback. At the same time, music critics unanimously crown The Beatles as the greatest rock band ever when they are, in fact, they were a decent pop group adopting trendy musical ideas and attitudes rather than innovating or doing anything of more depth than mere pop-ditties, unlike truly great bands like Pere Ubu or The Pop Group. People claim they want something “new” and “challenging” yet gorge themselves on mediocrity instead. This is both because they have no idea what great art is nor do they really want to be challenged, and the critics who are supposed to be educating the masses chose instead to engage in groupthink, in fear of being ousted as “wrong”. This is why culture is going downhill, and online bloggers have the opportunity to resuscitate the whole damn thing because most are not being paid-off, however, most don’t take the opportunity because many, unfortunately, are average people themselves and don’t know any better. This also means that good and great films aren’t given the attention they deserve because they’re either called “bad” for not fitting into the mold of what people consider “good”. Whoops.

And this is why mediocre films like Lincoln, as well as Spielberg’s other movies like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (hey! Did you know that the Nazis were bad guys?!) are so highly praised. Cause people are stupid and don’t like different things even though difference, they claim, is why they like Lincoln. It’s fucking frustrating that bloggers aren’t doing anything to change people’s perceptions as to what constitutes good and bad–shame many are too heavily embedded in a culture that prizes the middling.

Anyway, would I recommend this movie (in case you’re still wondering)? Eh, no. Not really. It’s not a “shit-film” for it’s nowhere near as pretentious and offensive as such monstrosities as Basquiat and American Beauty, but suffers because of its trite script. The acting (overall) is passable and the cinematography is decent craftmanship; these factors allow the movie to rise above awfulness, but not by much.

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One thought on “Lincoln (2012) – Movie Review

  1. “His dramatic films, while held in high-esteem, also represent what a child thinks of as “film” but the problem with this is that a child usually understands what elements are supposed to theoretically be in a film in order to be “serious” but don’t understand the subtle or complex foundations that make such elements function properly and give them meaning. In Lincoln, there’s the outburst Abraham Lincoln has in front of his cabinet. This is supposed to be a big “moment” in the film, but the reason why it doesn’t work is because there’s little depth to give such a “moment” meaning. A child knows that dramatic movies are filled with such “moments” but don’t truly understand the deeper reasoning behind them. Spielberg’s B-movies work because such films thrive on just “moments” alone with only shallow and functional character developments and arcs to make the audience care; there is little depth necessary, but in a good drama there needs to be something more than spectacle.”

    This is a great point. In high school, there were a # of people who loved films like Schindler’s List, etc., because it presented a kind of bare-minimum of depth that made it seem ‘different’ from typical Hollywood action bullshit. Yet barring anything truly deep, it was just that, a bare minimum, yet kids — and by extension the adults who never grow up — take that for the thing itself.

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