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Monday, December 3, 2012

Lincoln (Limited Release Date: 11-9-2012)

        A fierce war rages, as men lay down their lives into mud-bath graves for the sake of country. Their commander, a Mr. Abraham Lincoln, sits alone on a stage-like structure, canopy protecting him from relentless rain, as backlit as an angel. Several approach him, seeking words of wisdom and guidance, and are enthralled by his soft-spoken parables. They walk away, inspired, as Lincoln remains seated and still, his face a mixture of warmth and rippling inner-conflict. If you think you know the rap on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln before even seeing it... well, you're exactly right. Many things can, have, and will be said about Spielberg's Academy Award aspirant, but no one in their right mind would call the film unpredictable. Those who want the rousing story of the 16th president, complete with courage under fire, swelling music, and a veritable parade of lauded thespians gunning for their Oscar clips: come right it, the water's fine! Those who need to taste the food before they call the meal delicious will have a much wider array of reactions.

        The North might be right at the cusp of winning the Civil War, but President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) isn't done yet. Observing the unfavorable position of the South at the end of the scuffle, honest Abe deems this the perfect moment to get their begrudged blessing, and abolish slavery once and for all. This stance arrives much to the chagrin of many surrounding political minds, including advisor William Seward (David Strathairn), who would prefer to make stopping the violence the main priority. Needing all the help he can get, Abraham enlists the help of salty-but-determined Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), as well as a couple of con artists (James Spader among them) to help pass one of the most heavily-contested amendments ever conceived.

        The name Spielberg brings many thoughts and images to mind, from futuristic chase scenes, to roaming dinosaurs, to grand-scale spectacle. What doesn't come to mind, however, are intimate scenes of actors delivering dialogue, of which Lincoln is almost entirely comprised. The autuer's patented sense of spectacle has no where to go within Tony Kushner's screenplay, which seems content to sit six or more bearded chatter-boxes in a darkened room for the majority of its existence. There are moments when vocal sparks actually do fly, but for the most part, Lincoln stands as proof that having lots of dialogue is no substitute for being dialogue driven. The characters in the film mostly maintain their positions from the start to finish, and as we are of course intended to side with the Commander-in-Chief's view point, this head-butting bears desperately little weight. The good guys will remain good and right, and the bad guys will remain bad and wrong, and, in the end, the good guys will win. There is precious-little grey in Lincoln, and tidal waves of black and white.

        Making a movie with pedigree like this is bound to put a target on your back, and if we're being fair, I'm probably not this movie's target audience in the first place. But shouldn't the winners on Oscar night be decided when we actually see the finished product, not when all of the players sign on in the first place? Shouldn't great movies strive to accomplish and surprise, rather than simply deftly avoid the pot-holes that derail their more ambitious competition? Yeah, Day-Lewis is saintly and magnetic, Jones is funny and rips through the humorous moments of Kushner's screenplay, and the good guys win, and they all throw their hats into the air in celebration. No, Lincoln is not a bad movie, taking great care to never trip over its own coat-tails, the tremendous weight of expectations clearly digging into its eager-to-please shoulders. I'd essentially already seen the film when I saw the director's name, the cast, and the premise, and could have done well by my wallet to just stay home, and recreate the very same flick in my mind, scene for scene. Flavorless but filling: the recipe for Oscars, circa 2012.

Grade: C+

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