Every swell and crescendo of John Williams’ score and each silhouetted, portraitesque shot of Daniel Day Lewis tell you that Lincoln is “a very important film.” The problem is, although Lincoln is a very good film, it’s not a great film.
Which is not to say that there are not great performances in the film. Daniel Day Lewis gives yet another impressive performance portraying the American president while Tommy Lee Jones manages to steal almost every scene in which he appears. But it’s not enough to overcome the film’s deficiencies.
The director bears most of the blame for Lincoln’s shortcomings. When Spielberg is on, no one does a better job of telling stories. From Jurassic Park and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, Spielberg uses nuance to introduce tension. Who can forget the girl in the red dress in Schindler’s List or the ripples in a cup of water as the T-Rex approaches the car in Jurassic Park? However, Lincoln lacks any sort of nuance or subtlety. Every moment is an important moment, , every word is an important word, every speech is an important speech.
The lion’s share of the blame rests with Spielberg but John Williams’ score doesn’t help either. His neo-Wagnerian melodies brought Darth Vader to life but here they either fall flat or overpower Lincoln’s own words. The melancholic soundtrack of Schindler’s List, which underscored the enormity of the events, illustrated how a score can effectively serve the film. Spielberg somehow forgot this lesson and tries to apply a Jurassic Park score to a story more similar to Schindler’s List.
The extraneous plot lines do the film no favors either. Although Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performances this year in The Dark Knight Rises and Looper, not to mention in 2011’s 50/50, easily make him one of the most important actors to watch at this point in time, his role in Lincoln as the President’s oldest son, Robert, is a wasted performance. It adds nothing to the story of the film, which basically revolves around the campaign to pass the 13th Amendment, and interrupts the main action with irrelevant action.
One final note about Lincoln. Although I think Spielberg missed an opportunity to create a great movie instead of the simply good movie that Lincoln is, watching the story play out on the big screen does introduce one important idea. In The Dark Knight, Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent says “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” Watching Lincoln deal with the severed union and the slavery issue, it becomes obvious why he’s considered one of our greatest presidents. At the same time, his death immediately on the heels of the Civil War’s conclusion and the fact that he didn’t have to deal with all the bad blood and internecine conflict that continue to plague the US as a result of Reconstruction, allowed him to remain a hero. Without going into Reconstruction, Spielberg does a good job of illustrating this point. This is part of what makes the film so good. But the myriad of weaknesses prevent it from being great.