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21 January 2013

"Things That Are Equal To the Same Thing Are Equal To Each Other"

It's not every day that you get a movie that quotes Euclid, but it's clear that Steven Spielberg's new film Lincoln isn't your average film. Since Lincoln's appearance at the New York Film Festival last October (at the Lincoln Center, of course), it has had 'Oscar bait' all over it, with film pundits predicting wins in several of the major categories, especially Daniel Day Lewis for his role as the eponymous 16th POTUS.

I got to see Lincoln at a preview the weekend before last and I have to say that it didn't blow me away. It probably didn't help that it was the third film of five that I watched that day and, not having had much time for lunch, I was a little sleepy. Even so, it felt longer than its 2h30 length, and I think the first act in particular was far too long, although the action did pick up in the second half. The film opens in the dying days of Abraham Lincoln's presidency. The Civil War is still raging, but all Lincoln really wants is to push through what would become the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. Of course, as we learned from Django Unchained (thanks, Quentin!), not everyone is in favour of such a radical position, and even within Lincoln's own party, opinions differ as to whether black people should be considered fully equal or just legally equal.

Part of my problem with the film may have been my own understanding—or lack thereof—of the politics of the period. I feel like I have a fairly good working knowledge of contemporary US politics, but I knew I was in over my head when I discovered that Lincoln was a Republican. The party was, of course, completely different back then, but without the helpful modern analogies to fall back on, I struggled to work out who was doing what and why. This being a Spielberg movie, the cast was also huge, with a lot of big names, and I kept getting a lot of wig-donning, white, male senators mixed up. I thought Joseph Gordon Levitt was underused as Lincoln's oldest son Robert, but it was nice to see Lane Pryce Jared Harris popping up as Ulysses S. Grant. Tommy Lee Jones, playing Thaddeus Stevens, a fierce opponent of slavery and a radical Republican, was really good. His character got a lot of the best lines and, judging by Wikipedia at least, he really looked the part too.

Of course, no one did a better job of looking the part than Daniel Day Lewis. Well done, Daniel; another great physical transformation. I really like DDL (it started with his performance as Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, one of my all-time favourites) and I thought he was really good and extremely convincing, but I just wasn't as excited by his performance as I expected to be. I am pretty sure he will end up adding another Oscar to his collection, but having now seen all five of this year's Best Actor nominees in action, he wouldn't be my first choice.

I feel like a second viewing might improve my appreciation for this film, but equally, I feel like Spielberg does this a lot, almost as though he wants or even requires you to watch some of his films at least twice. I've probably seen about half of his films, and about half of those I liked, while the other half I could take or leave. I loved Catch Me If You Can, which I recently re-watched, loved Hook and Jurassic Park when I was a kid, never finished watching Saving Private Ryan and could never be bothered to watch War Horse. And just because John Williams does all of the soundtracks, which I do generally like, do they all have to sound so similar? A lot of the refrains in Lincoln sounded just like the bits of the War Horse score I heard in the trailer.

Lincoln is beautifully shot and there were some lovely set pieces—that shot of the Capitol Building after the vote passed, for example; so reminiscent of the Obama fever after the 2008 presidential elections... It's also a very worthy film on a very important topic, but somehow it just didn't engage me. And although there are many different reasons for film-makers to make movies, I go to the cinema because I want to be entertained and to be told a compelling story; in that way, Lincoln let me down.


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