Stephen Spielberg’s biopic about Lincoln’s final days is about as interesting as viewing the windbaggery of today’s politicians on “C-Span” for three solid hours. The theater goer is subjected to endless political speeches pro and con the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. Obscure politicians jockey back and forth for personal gain while the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. Meanwhile a brooding Lincoln remains on the sidelines. The political rants are cobbled together in no particular order to tell the story rather than show it unfolding. At times it feels like a PowerPoint presentation by men in wool waistcoats, vests and wigs. At least on “C-Span” the outcome of the story is in doubt. In “Lincoln,” Spielberg settles for confusion rather than suspense.
A stellar cast led by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln breathes some life into the ponderous, dull and confusing script. But in straining to shed new light on Lincoln’s character, the writers have Day-Lewis mouthing one humorous anecdote after another without concern for their relevance to the rest of the dialog. As a result, the plot progresses in fits, starts and nonsequiturs. Even the characters in the film are left scratching their heads.
Tommy Lee Jones (as congressman Thaddeus Stephens) and Sally Fields (as Mary Todd Lincoln) also deliver stellar, albeit short performances. There are so many supporting actors wandering across the screen that the film loses focus and never fully explores the character of Lincoln. The Great Emancipator comes off as a smallish, political infighter surrounded by a sleazy, scurrilous lot of unprincipled hacks ready to do his bidding. His political adversaries appear as hapless straw men. Laughable buffoons without the courage of their convictions, they are easily cowered to the point of speechlessness. (A speechless politician?)
Lincoln isn’t even present at the climax of the movie. In a fierce debate on the House floor, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) is challenged by southern congressmen who know he is a staunch foe of slavery. They demand to know whether he believes all men are created equal. But, Stevens outwits them by saying he believes all men are equal under the law, including his unsavory opponents. His artful defense of the 13th Amendment carries the day.
Watching this movie, reminded me of something Otto Von Bismarck said: “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.”
As a character study, this film fails to deliver. But its subject matter is of such historical significance that, hopefully, it will attract a wider audience than “C-Span.”