A Decade at the Oscars: Lincoln
60) Darkest Hour (Joe Wright, 2017)
61) Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)
62) Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012)
63) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)
64) Bohemian Rhapsody (Dexter Fletcher and Bryan Singer, 2018)
Lincoln takes up an unfortunate position in the bottom five of my ranking of the last decade of Oscar Best Picture nominated movies. It’s not that it’s a bad film exactly, and indeed it is far better than the two below it, but it is a work that lacks ambition or subtlety. Upon closer inspection of my rankings, it is clear that Lincoln settles in its place alongside other examples of its generic kin: the historical drama. Now I recognise that this might be an entirely subjective personal preference thing (but then, what isn’t?), and I know people who would rank some of these mediocre historical biopics far higher up their own lists, but for me it is a tired genre that lacks inventiveness or excitement. Many of the films are as stale and old-hat as the history itself. Of course, this is not always the case, and there are plenty of examples higher up my list where a part of history is retold in an interesting, innovative, or just particularly engrossing way (think The Imitation Game [Morten Tyldum, 2014] or Jojo Rabbit [Taika Waititi, 2019] or Spotlight [Tom McCarthy, 2015], for example), but with films like Darkest Hour and Bridge of Spies, you can’t help but feel you are being forced to sit through a rather dry history lesson, with almost irritatingly precise, Oscar-bait-y performances, and never is this more true than in Lincoln.
One of the things I dislike most about Spielberg’s film is that which it believes is its greatest asset, and upon which so much praise has been heaped: the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis in the titular role. Before I am accused of being a contrarian or for simply having a personal vendetta against Day-Lewis, I should make clear that I have greatly enjoyed many of his past performances. The contrast between his characters in My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985) and A Room with a View (James Ivory, 1985) demonstrated his incredible range and talent, and yet over the years, much as the fabled director Stanley Kubrick became increasingly dangerously fanatical about the smallest details in his films, I feel Day-Lewis has become somewhat lost in his obsessive method acting style. Thus, in his performances of this decade, both Lincoln and Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017), which I also intend to review this week, he has become almost robotic, his every movement, his every facial expression, his every word micromanaged to the point of losing all sense of naturalness. As Lincoln, he gives a pretentious, rigid performance. Sure, it’s sort of cool the way he makes himself appear much taller than he is to match the president’s stature, and his reserved stoicism is clearly intended to make one of the most revered figures in American history come across as greater than any man could truly be, but the smug smile on Day-Lewis’s face throughout just pulls me right out of my suspension of disbelief. He just seems to be enjoying himself far too much as he chews his way through scenes, almost as if he is mocking the audience with his overly-measured performance. Sure, he is supposedly retired now, but if he ever returns to acting, I just hope he loosens up and returns to the freedom of his youthful performances, where his characters were brimming with personality rather than coming across as automatons constructed from the minutiae of movement and vocal control.
Day-Lewis’s performance isn’t the film’s only false step, though, and Spielberg must also take his share of the blame. Spielberg is quite the prolific filmmaker, and while he can sometimes still make decent stuff, he really is the arch perpetrator of this boring genre, with Bridge of Spies also his doing, and The Post (2017) not much further up the list. It seems no matter how uninspired his subject matter and no matter how ham-fisted a job he makes of the direction, the Academy will continue to nominate his films for old-time’s sake. If we’re being honest with ourselves, even in his best movies Spielberg was never one for subtlety and in Lincoln he is at his worst, making the film all about clumsy, obvious visual metaphors and lengthy lectures on morality. Of course I agree with the politics of Lincoln – of course slavery is bad and it’s great that good wins out over evil, sense over senselessness, liberalism over conservatism. And these things probably do need to be spelt out in the film, it does need a clear moral compass. I only wish they were put to us in a more dynamic way than the clichéd slow zoom whenever a character is saying something of importance, a technique which persists from the opening speech to the final tableau. Films like Lincoln and its fellow bore-fests are starting to make Spielberg look like a director of the past who is stuck in his ways and who, despite his immense experience and stature within the film industry, may be past his sell-by date when it comes to directing riveting, innovative movies.
There are little things to like about Lincoln. There are clear parallels to modern politics with all the president’s manoeuvring and bending of the rules. It raises the question of whether it is acceptable to behave in an unjust manner if you are morally in the right? And of course, whether the legendary figure of Lincoln would be so admired if he burst onto the political scene today? I suspect not. If Day-Lewis’s performance is over-the-top, Tommy Lee Jones is perfect as Thaddeus Stevens, a more radical member of Lincoln’s Republican party. His side-plot and moral dilemma are easily the best part of Spielberg’s film, with a final revelation that gives his story a melancholy twist. Unlike Day-Lewis’s smugness, Jones’s face is always a portrait of lived-in character and brow-beaten masculinity; he is the rare breed of actor who can convey much even in a still photograph. So there are little nuggets that can be taken from Lincoln, but for the most part viewing the film is a flat experience, which may end up provoking your irritation more than it provokes your thoughts.
At time of writing, Lincoln is unavailable on any of the major streaming platforms, so consider adding it to your DVD collection.