“Lincoln”, or “Patriotism, History, Abe Lincoln, ‘Merica” by Caitlin McGrane

Posted on March 1, 2013


There’s a line from In The Loop in which Toby says to Chad, “You talk almost entirely in parables don’t you? You’re like a crap Jesus.” Similarly in Lincoln, there is a moment where one of the many, many characters says words to the same effect: they just can’t listen to Lincoln tell tales of morals in stories and metaphors anymore. The stories are actually fascinating and in a recent interview Steven Spielberg confirmed that Lincoln the man did actually speak like that, but I spent two and a half hours with the film version of the man, and I have to admit that was more than enough.

A notable profile.

A notable profile.

Lincoln the film is almost crying out for awards. It’s got it all method acting, adversity, triumph and corsets. Daniel Day-Lewis is in predictably fine form and it’s not hard to see why he won Best Actor at the Oscars. However, it is Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field who really steal the show for me. I would happily watch spin-offs about either of their characters; Lee Jones is Radical Republican Congressional leader, Thaddeus Stevens, the most passionate supporter of the abolition of slavery seen on screen. And Field is First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, the permanently beleaguered wife of the President who must cope with the intrusion of her husband’s public office into their private life. Honourable mention must also go to Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, eldest son of Abe and Mary whose decision to leave college to join the army causes tension in the Presidential home.

The film reminded me of The Social Network, where screenwriter Aaron Sorkin managed to make one of the dullest tit-for-tat court cases seem riveting and exciting. Unfortunately, the same cannot entirely be said of Lincoln. The film is about the passing of the 13th Amendment to the American Constitution – causing the end of slavery, and the end of the civil war; and it certainly has its moments. A party of three men led by William N. Bilbo (amusingly referred to throughout the film as Mr Bilbo) spend much of the film lobbying the Democrats sitting on the fence about passing the Amendment, which provides some much-needed mirth. I also really enjoyed Day-Lewis’ physical embodiment of the role – he towers, almost statuesque above the rest of the cast. And that’s also what lets the film down, I think.

Top hats and horsies: if that’s not an indication of serious seriousness, we don’t know what is.

There’s an awful lot of grandstanding and explanation of the plot and it gets tedious pretty quickly for me. I thought about what else Lincoln was up against at the awards this year, and I think there are far more films with something interesting to say (Argo and Silver Linings for example). We’ve seen the triumph over adversity story a thousand times, and I wished Spielberg had done something interesting with that old trope. I understand that the abolition of slavery is of such importance to people of colour that I could never ever hope to fully understand, but I think Django Unchained was actually clearer in that message.

So I suppose I have mixed feelings about Lincoln. It tells an important story, but in quite a boring way. Before I bore you all to tears, I must mention the soundtrack by John Williams. If you’ve seen a number of Spielberg’s other films (eg. A.I, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Schindler’s List) you’ll know what I mean about the hyper-emotive, overly dramatic score. It grated on me, but I’m a grumpy old sod.

Caitlin McGrane is You’re Dripping Egg’s resident movie reviewer. You can catch her column, Here. Hare. Here., every Friday.

What do you think? Are you a Lincoln fan, or it bore you? Take to the comments section.