I guess the days when Steven Spielberg created simple, exhilarating films are irrevocably over. My favourite of his is probably his very first, Duel, made in 1971, and the distance from that picture to his latest historical biopic, Lincoln, is enormous in every sense. This year's entry is a comprehensive, untiring study of the final months of Abraham Lincoln's life and his work to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed by the House of Representatives while the Civil War raged on into its final stage around the country. It's a film about lobbyism and political squabble, full of anecdotes and characterizations by and of Lincoln himself, who is gracefully (perhaps a little too gracefully) played by the impeccable Daniel Day-Lewis, who mimics mannerisms and speech like few others – and falls in love with his characters like few others.
Lincoln differs from Spielberg's other historical epics (The Color Purple, Schindler's List, Amistad) in that it's lacking the obvious grandeur in imagery and dramatizations. And thank goodness for that, because this has been a trait which hasn't worked to these films' advantage – they've been oversaturated with goodness and meaning. In Lincoln, Spielberg's not striving so much for the grandiose as for the detailed, and through this almost obsessive attention to detail he's showing some of the same uncompromisingness which made some of his earliest films so remarkable. With that said, Lincoln still is a message movie and a somewhat uncritical biographical account where the title character feels a little too saintly and modern in his perspectives (the latter is true also for many other characters, such as the soldiers in the improbable opening scene). I'm by no means a history scholar, so I cannot assess the accuracy of how these proceedings or Mr. Lincoln himself are portrayed, but there are a handful of scenes here which seem out of place, like for instance one where Lincoln has a chat with his black maid on the porch. I'm not contesting the historical aspects of such scenes, but rather the melodrama Spielberg makes them into.
I'm not, however, criticizing the dialogue and the talkative nature of the film, which may well feel magniloquent for modern moviegoers. Some may even find it boring, but I liked it and value it as one of the hallmarks of the film. People obviously conversed in a different tone and tempo 150 years ago than they do today, and I think Spielberg captures this well. However, in his invariable focus on these conversations he also creates a ceremonial and occasionally undynamic piece, before clutching somewhat clumsily at the few dramatic opportunities that arise, such as the balancing of the votes in the House of Representatives. The political mechanisms portrayed are continually interesting, but some of the interpersonal and character portrayals feel simplified.
Alas, Lincoln is a flawed film – far more flawed than how Lincoln himself comes off here. It's also very condensed, despite its lengthy running time; there were many other aspects to the abolishment of slavery in the United States than what is discussed here. Still, as a period piece and a biographical account, the film is both highly fascinating and to some degree important. Spielberg demonstrates that he's able to shake off some of his most pompous traits as a director. Now he only needs to rid himself of the outdated John Williams and his increasingly vapid musical scores.