In his review of Django Unchained, A.O. Scott begins with a comparison made by his teenage daughter contrasting the depiction of slavery between Django and Steven Spielberg’s latest endeavour, Lincoln. He comes to the conclusion that both films ostensibly take two very different approaches to that same problem. And in truth they do, Django Unchained brings to life the horrible realities of slavery in the Deep South, demonstrating the deep-rooted exploitation and abuse of slaves by plantation owners in a way that was visceral, yet thrilling. Lincoln dulls the subject to the point of banality and at 2 and a half hours long is a slog of a film. I couldn’t believe how quickly I was bored by the climax of the American Civil War and the emancipation of millions of slaves.
Much like The King’s Speech, Lincoln is over-brimming with the same historical fetishism that offers a ‘window’ into the 19th Century, but it’s a rose-tinted window that strays significantly from reality. Firstly, I’m pretty sure 1860’s Washington was not sepia-toned. The depiction of Congress as the battleground of democracy plays right into America’s view of its political system as tough but fair while sidestepping many issue within it. Perhaps the biggest historical simplification is Lincoln’s attitudes towards African Americans: he unequivocally opposes slavery and he, along with the other Republicans, must struggle to pass the 13th Amendment through Congress against the unified discrimination of the Democrats (how times change). The reality in fact is far more nuanced than this; Lincoln supported some forms of segregation and his motivations behind the Civil War weren’t simply driven by ending slavery.
However, this is not the point of Lincoln. The point of Lincoln is to, as Spielberg sees it, manipulate the audience. It takes a very self-righteous tone when it comes to the 13th Amendment; democracy is saved from the clutches of tyranny, and without the work of the Republicans we can only assume that America would be a dictatorship at the moment (wasn’t that an American Dad episode?). Fans of Lincoln highlight the scenes in Congress, they argue they’re dynamic and enthralling. They’re wrong. They are in fact horribly cliché; the swelling of the score at every moment of political strife, the tepid rhetoric and romantic political atmosphere are nauseating. It’s like The West Wing, only minus the insightful political intrigue, or Martin Sheen and Allison Janney, or merit.
The strength of Lincoln is the acting. Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and David Strathairn all give Oscar-worthy (or perhaps orientated) performances. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a caricature of the President; it is authentic and offers an insight into one of the most popular politicians in history. However, it plays up to the popular perception of Lincoln – it attempts to humanise him, but ultimately feeds backs into that perception. In some scenes when asked pertinent questions by his advisers, Lincoln tangentially erupts into unrelated anecdotes, which does have the effect of making him seem senile. When pressed whether or not to attempt political tact with the 13th Amendment, he often yells at his advisers for not believing in democracy as much as he does. If Lincoln had an inner monologue it would mostly consist of: “How much do I love Democracy – a lot or the most?” It’s a mixed depiction of the 16th President, but one that is undeniably well performed by Day-Lewis.
As with any film in which he attempts to dabble with ideology, Spielberg is heavy-handed and boorishly repetitive. It’s an astonishing accomplishment; from its beginning scene until Lincoln’s obligatory assassination, Lincoln manages to maintain a level of irritation and predictability like no other film. Well, maybe War Horse. Try as he might, Day-Lewis couldn’t polish this turd.