Steven Speilberg is a guy with father issues — he’s said so himself. Many of the male characters in his films are often at odds with their dads, and as a result, art in the Speilberg world often imitates life. Abraham Lincoln has been a kind of father figure in American history, and writers have mined his biography, his speeches, and his political career for their perspective on a man who was elected president during one of our nation’s most difficult times. Lincoln was, and forever shall be, a difficult guy to describe.
But what of the film that Speilberg made? Well, it’s certainly one of the most anti-Speilbergian films he’s ever directed. The action is, for the most part, very muted (a surprising choice given that the Civil War was one of the bloodiest in American history), the dialogue-heavy script centers on the last four months of Lincoln’s presidency and his efforts to get the 13 Amendment to the Constitution passed by the House of Representatives, and that means the movie has a lot of talking. Indeed, at one point Lincoln (as played very well by Daniel Day Lewis) starts to tell a story before one of the battles during the Civil War to his assembled staff, when Lincoln’s secretary of war gets very annoyed and yells: “No more stories!” It was funny, but after the movie was over there were a couple of kids behind us who were very much in agreement with that sentiment.
Me? I thought the movie was quite good, but not great. The story lagged quite a bit, and while there were points that were very entertaining (i.e., James Spader as a cigar smoking lobbyist was pretty funny), there were others that just seemed to go on and on. The performances were all stellar, but it wasn’t until Lincoln and Mary had a big argument about grieving over the death of their son did things get interesting. That is to say, that’s when Lincoln became human.
There’s a great deal written about Lincoln’s own melancholy and depression, but very little of that came out in Lewis’ performance. Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln played her quite well, but often to the point where she was constantly on the edge of a breakdown. Only at one point did she show her political acumen — which added some nice depth to her character — but moments like that were all-too brief.
Overall, Lincoln is a film worth seeing. It’s not a perfect film, but Spielberg does weave in the theme of the “missing father,” and because he did, he left his mark on a historical figure who was far more complex than than what was presented on the screen.