Spielberg the Storyteller?

I feel sort of embarrassed to say this as the thing has gotten such euphoric reviews, but Steven Spielberg’s new movie about Abraham Lincoln kinda left me cold. I exited the theatre over the weekend feeling like I didn’t give much of a hoot about any of the characters and the film falls way short of its director’s usual storytelling skills.

The biopic is most interesting for its performances, even though Tony Kushner’s script doesn’t make me care all that much about the characters.

Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones are particularly magnetic in the roles of, respectively, the Sixteenth President of the Unites States and Thaddeus Stevens, a powerful member of the House of Representatives and a radical Republican (back in the days when radical Republicans stood for things that could make a positive impact on the country as a whole, like anti-slavery laws, rather than the sorts of ideas that today’s right wing wonks hold dear.)

This film version of Lincoln also tells a refreshing narrative which focuses not on the president’s untimely death or small-town roots, as so many other biopics about Lincoln do, but rather on the thorny political wranglings surrounding the passing the Thirteenth Amendment — the bill to end slavery. As such, the movie provides a welcome, in-depth insight into some of the main players involved in bringing about the amendment — and opposing it, as well as the causes and effects of the historical event.

But Lincoln doesn’t make for very compelling cinema. The narrative arc of Kushner’s script feels stolid and there isn’t a whole lot to hold on to for people who aren’t well versed in American political history. In other words, it’s quite easy to get confused and even bored with the focus on concepts rather than characters.

Finally, besides the extraordinarily visceral battle scene that opens the film and a few beautifully lit silhouette shots of Day-Lewis, the film isn’t all that interesting to look at. The claustrophobic interiors of old wood and cold light are certainly atmospheric, but there’s little in the way of visual variety.

PS On the subject of Day-Lewis’ performance: I can’t understand why people in the media are making such a fuss about the actor’s accent and gait. I don’t find the voice that Day-Lewis adopts to be particularly high. And the Lincoln in this film is captured during his Autumn years. So it stands to reason that his walk might be ambling and his frame a little stooped. I found Day-Lewis’ personification of Lincoln to be nuanced and warm, but hardly weird.


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  1. MWnyc says

    Chloe, I think people in the (American) media are making a fuss about DDL’s accent and gait because, while they more or less match* contemporary descriptions of Lincoln, they are very different from the image of Lincoln the cultural icon by which we Americans have been surrounded our whole lives.

    Lincoln the pop icon is tall, deep-baritone-voiced, plain-spoken but eloquent, and stands straight – in short, A Great Man, A Colossus Of History. We’ve been exposed to that image so many times, and so casually, that it’s part of our collective subconscious. So naturally we find it striking when an actor recreates something approximating the actual Lincoln his contemporaries described – we know it’s closer to the truth, but it’s so very different from what we expect without even knowing we expect it. You, not having grown up in the UK with no Lincoln-the-icon implanted in your subconscious, wouldn’t find DDL’s depiction surprising.

    Similarly — You write, “The narrative arc of Kushner’s script feels stolid and there isn’t a whole lot to hold on to for people who aren’t well versed in American political history.” That’s likely the key to the difference between your reaction to the film and that of most (US) viewers. I haven’t seen the film yet, but there’s probably a lot of background info about that particular story that we fill in automatically without realizing it but would leave our friends across the pond confused.

    I suppose the same thing would happen to us if, say, Danny Boyle or a latter-day David Attenborough made a film about Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot – if the screenplay included enough background info to keep us over here clued in, the Brits who would be the movie’s first audience would likely find it overly obvious and didactic.

    – – – – –

    * I agree, by the way, that the voice DDL uses isn’t all that high. From what I’ve read, I gather Lincoln had a high-tenor yawp – something one almost never finds in a man so tall – with very broad and flat midwestern vowels. DDL and Spielberg probably wouldn’t dare go that far.

    • says

      Thanks for your eloquent thoughts!
      I do think there are ways to tell complex stories in enough detail that people who are not well-versed in specific knowledge don’t feel lost and people with that knowledge don’t feel bored or like they’re being preached at. Examples from mainstream cinema world that illustrate this might be Flags of Our Fathers and Elizabeth, to name but two titles that spring to mind.

      • MWnyc says

        Hmmm … Are you sure you want to use Elizabeth as an example here, considering how it veered away from historical fact? (I’m presuming that you mean to the Shekhar Kapoor film starring Cate Blanchett.)

        You’re right, of course, that there are ways of telling a complex story that keep the less-well-versed clued in without boring the more knowledgeable. (For instance, it’s something that classical music critics have to do all the time.) But it’s a tricky business to pull off. And Kushner and Spielberg, being Americans, probably aren’t even aware of what they’ve omitted that people who weren’t brought up here don’t know about. After all, we Americans in general are notorious for forgetting about the rest of the world …

  2. HIP OP says

    —Oh Spielberg is doing MORE than story telling.
    —He’s delivering, once again, PC moral alibis and
    predictive programming for the capstone agenda.

    And –TAKE HEED!– in this 6th? –7th? Lincoln retread,
    yet again there’s NO mention, much less examination
    of the REAL Lincoln’s quite possibly –FATAL– diss
    of the Global USURY banking syndicate over financing
    of the war.

    —————————————————-CHECK IT OUT!