The opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln shows Union and Confederate soldiers in bloody hand-to-hand
combat, up to their knees in mud and water, and the audience prepares for the
kind of horrors that introduced Saving
Private Ryan. As it happens,
Spielberg used the same cinematographer, Janusz Kaminiski, for both films.
But that early glimpse of the Civil War bloodbath turns
out to be the only battle scene in the entire film. Most of the action is confined to the White
House, the House of Representatives, and various murky, smoke-filled rooms, photographed
in a kind of brownish haze redolent of early Victorian snapshots.
This is not, then, the sweeping epic of the Lincoln presidency that a
two-and-a-half hours running time might suggest. There are no cameras swooping over bloody fields
filled with converging armies and littered with corpses. It is, instead, a rather talky,
quasi-documentary account of Lincoln’s
famous lobbying campaign in January 1865, over the course of a few weeks, to railroad
the House into outlawing slavery by passing the thirteenth amendment to the
Constitution. The Civil War, winding
down to the surrender at Appomattox,
is merely the backdrop, glimpsed infrequently – and then unnecessarily.
Spielberg’s restraint in avoiding great vistas staged
for the wide-screen treatment is entirely fitting, given the film’s
concentrated plot, though at times one gets the feeling that he would have
liked to break away from the shadowy political horse-trading into the wide open
spaces, if only to register an appropriate Hollywood tribute to Abraham
Lincoln’s status as one of the mighty figures in American history.
The film’s sense of confinement is not to its
disadvantage; the back-room political chicanery is the whole point. When, on occasion, the camera does go
outdoors, it’s just a little disconcerting, the scenes extraneous and jarring.
Also, about half-an-hour in, I began to get the
feeling I was watching the second episode of Amistad, an earlier Spielberg take on Negro emancipation. It’s not just the shared theme, but the look
and feel of the treatments. If Spielberg
makes a third film on the subject – say, on the Civil Rights movement of the
1960s – he will have completed a trilogy of Negro history.
I enjoyed Lincoln,
but I can’t say that I warmed to it. I
never seem to warm to Spielberg films these days. His previous film, War Horse, was a pointless
travesty of the stage play. He used to be more fun when he was tackling lighter
subjects. I can still chuckle or squirm delightedly
at Sugarland Express, Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET.
Lincoln at times seems somewhat solemn and clinical,
leaving me detached from either the tensions or the emotions of the
occasion. It was the Amistad crowd going through their
routine all over again, with different actors.
I did find myself warming to Abe himself, as a real
person – a tribute to Daniel Day-Lewis’s predictably impeccable
performance. The actor’s well known
obsessions with method techniques may strike us as odd, but one has to concede
that they work. If one believes the
accounts of the biographers, he’s got Abe down to a T. And it’s not so much the quavery high-pitched
voice or the stoop as the peculiar stilted walk. One readily believes that they belonged to
the original gangly owner. It’s the best
screen walk since Alec Guinness’s Colonel Nicholson stiff-legged march after
leaving the ‘cooler’, in The Bridge on
the River Kwai.
Spielberg has made worse films, but much better ones,
too. Lighten up, Steve.