An Epic Fail: Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

A Case For Cinema
Abe ain't happy with you, girl.
Abe ain't happy with you, girl. // Creative Commons

I would not hesitate to classify Steven Spielberg’s newest film, “Lincoln,” as epic: It is epic in its length (verging on three hours), its dramatic acting (Daniel Day-Lewis does not even attempt to hide his Oscar greed), its portrayal of a moment that some might deem the most important in America’s history (the passing of the 13th Amendment). There is no doubt, then, that if in describing “Lincoln” as epic, one means that it is “heroic or grand in scale or character,” it quite certainly fits the bill. But does this “epic” nature necessitate the film’s caliber as a cinematic piece? Does the fact that “Lincoln” is an epic make it “epic” in the word’s colloquial connotation?  With 12 Academy Award nominations under its belt, including those for best picture, best director and best adapted screenplay, “Lincoln” seems to have won the opinion of the Academy. A. O. Scott, the head film critic for The New York Times, too praised “Lincoln,” deeming it the second-best movie of the year, eclipsed only by “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” Yet, the many times I checked my watch during the first hour of “Lincoln” prompts me to wonder just how captivating of a film it really is. Although the film showcases a beautiful aesthetic permeated by a few strong performances, ultimately, I posit that the film’s flat storyline, distant characters and lack of emotional upheaval leave the film cinematically vapid, generating a bland history lesson unqualified to win the modern film industry’s most prestigious award.

A first problem with “Lincoln” is its lack of emotional development. Although I lauded the film’s resolution — I don’t think that I will spoil anyone’s viewing experience by stating that the amendment passes — my satisfaction stemmed not from the plot or characters of the prior two and a half hours, but rather my preconceived notions. I entered the theater, as I believe did most viewers, with a strong aversion to slavery and a positive image of President Lincoln as an intelligent, charismatic leader. And, not surprisingly, at the end of the film I was still ardently anti-slavery and believed Lincoln to be a pretty good guy. Therefore, I was glad to see the abolition of slavery and the victory of one of our country’s greatest heroes. Yet these emotions were pulled by pre-existing ideals rather than anything the film brought to the table.

This lack of emotional pull derives mostly from a second problem of the film: an inability to create lovable or evolving characters. Mary (Sally Field), Lincoln’s wife, is an awful, self-centered, whining woman. Seward (David Strathairn), Lincoln’s secretary of state, drifts in and out of the film without enough consistency to sustain viewer interest. And weakest of all was Lincoln’s young son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), whose sugary sweet innocence proved more aggravating than endearing.

This is not to say that the film does not showcase strong performances, for it certainly does. Rather, it is not the actors, but the characters themselves who fail. Most importantly, Lincoln himself, although played with a determined intensity by Lewis, remains cold and closed off to the audience. Scott, in his review, claims that the beauty of Lincoln’s character portrayal lies in the audience’s chance to watch him decide on the issue of the amendment. I would argue, rather, that the audience watches Lincoln decided, rather than in the act of deciding — a state quite different, and far less active or interesting than the situation that Scott praises. If the viewer senses any personal struggle within Lincoln, it is simply over politics and the seeming incompetence surrounding him. A moral struggle, questioning or active decision-making would have made for a much deeper, more consuming character.

These problems stem from a larger one: the problem of adaptation. I wholeheartedly agree with my fellow film critic Michael Lomax ’14 in his opinion that, in order to succeed, an adaptation must differentiate itself from its original. Such applies particularly in the case of the adaptation of a great work: an adaptation may simply fix a poor original, but the better the original, the more the copy must differ in order to achieve its own success. For a pertinent example, one might look at Baz Luhrmann’s new “Gatsby” film. Many have criticized its trailers for their indulgent use of Luhrmann style (in the vein of “Moulin Rouge!” or “Romeo + Juliet”) and modern rap music, lamenting the film’s seeming departure from the book. Yet, if Luhrmann attempted to create a literal version of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” hailed as one of America’s best literary works, could he do anything but flounder in comparison? By adding an element to the story, by reflecting the nouveau riche of “Gatsby” through excess, Luhrmann explicitly tells his audience that his is not a direct translation. It is an adaptation — it is Luhrmann’s.

Although Spielberg may not be adapting a timeless literary classic, he is certainly adapting for the screen a classic moment in American history. And the aforementioned “epic” style does pay homage to the importance of such a moment. Unfortunately, “Lincoln” has added no extra element to the story of the passing of the 13th Amendment — no intriguing story arch, no relatable characters, no modern perspective — and therefore leaves us with a textbook, a dry re-enactment rather than an enjoyable feature film.

Scott defends “Lincoln”’s value with a proclamation that it is a story about slavery. In clothing his story in such grandeur, Spielberg seems to claim to in fact present “the” story of slavery’s abolition, rather than “a” story of slavery’s abolition. And here lies yet a fourth problem with “Lincoln”: Where are the slaves? With slavery depicted in only a few, quick allusions to the difficult lives of young black children in the South, the film skips out on the true problems of slavery to present the audience with slavery not as an issue of human rights, but rather as an important struggle for the white man’s conscience. Far from claiming this to be Spielberg’s view of the issue, I have no doubt that this was how it was presented to Congress at the time. Yet, this is an adaptation. A major benefit of a depiction in the 21st century of a struggle in the mid-19th century would be to add a modern perspective. This modern perspective could have been the ingredient that “Lincoln” was missing, an element that could have elevated the film from a mere transcription of history to a great adaptation.

In a video interview with David Carr, A. O. Scott attempts to defend his view of “Lincoln.” Yet, he comes off as meek, inarticulate and wavering — it almost makes one wonder if Spielberg is a close personal friend or if Scott has some back-end deal with DreamWorks. He harps on “how tall [Lincoln] was” and the “use of voice” to personify the historical image of Lincoln. Yes, these aspects were intriguing, and most definitely contribute to historical accuracy and the film’s grand scale. But beyond these details, Scott’s responses consist of nothing more than a sixth-grader’s whining and defensive retorts. He seems to have nothing to say about “Lincoln” rather than to admire its epicness.

Spielberg, a historical, innovative and talented director, has created a picture that screams of its own epic nature. Yet, does this a best picture make? I would argue no, and hope that the Academy will too.

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