In Lincoln, Steven Spielberg is obviously attempting to channel the late-great director of Americana: John Ford (The Searchers, Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Quiet Man). In certain aspects Spielberg even manages to capture some of the qualities that made a John Ford movie a John-Ford-movie. Lincoln, as played by Daniel Day-Lewis, certainly has the homespun quality of a man of little formal education, a man who knows things because he chose to learn them. His knowledge was not taught to him, his knowledge was taken upon himself. He speaks in anecdotes and stories, much to the annoyance of those around him, but he speaks fluently and with the command of a true leader of the American people.
In fact, near the end of Lincoln we see the titular character walk away from the camera and half expect the Battle Hymn of the Republic to play on the soundtrack behind the scene, much as it does near the end of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln. Even visually the film is very reminiscent of John Ford’s films. Negative space is used effectively in most camera compositions, and many scenes are filmed in silhouette with the characters appearing like shadows with light pouring in from behind them. Visually the only thing missing is the wonderful color palate of John Ford’s later films. Unlike The Searchers and The Quiet Man, Lincoln is a cold looking movie; appearing to be gray and brown in most instances, which does little to separate it from the flock of other drab looking historical pieces being filmed and released today.
But ultimately the film feels to be a cheap impression of John Ford’s work; an imitation of something far greater than itself.
Despite the fact that Daniel Day-Lewis gives what might be the performance of a lifetime, and despite the fact that the cinematography is stunning (even if a bit drab from a color standpoint), the film feels flawed by its admiration and imitation of the films of John Ford. To anyone unfamiliar with John Ford’s films this is a non-issue (other than the homespun quality possibly feeling outdated and schlock-y). But for others the film could possibly be hindered by its referential qualities.
Also we face the issue of the narrative being slightly (I stress slightly) revisionist in its portrayal of Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves. I also find it interesting that there is no mention in the film of Frederick Douglass, which seems like a great oversight. But, this is a Hollywood biopic and not a history lesson. That said, Lincoln is an entertaining film, even a good film, but falls short of being a great one. I am hesitant to recommend the film to history buffs, hesitant to recommend the film to film buffs, and, because of the film’s running time and pace, hesitant to recommend the film to casual movie goers.
The film is sure to win a boatload of awards, and I have few doubts that Daniel Day-Lewis will be recognized for his marvelous performance as our 16th President. But I can’t say that I’m too excited about that or surprised. It’s a safe film. Spielberg is playing it safe, but he appears to be enjoying himself, so who am I to put the man down?
You should go see the movie if only for Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, but don’t expect a history lesson…or at least not an exact history lesson.
At my showing, when the film was over, one woman stood up and said out loud: “Phew, it’s over!” turned to the girl sitting next to her and said, “There, you saw it, now let’s go.” Something to keep in mind.
Here is the trailer on Youtube: