Even though I've loved a couple of Steven Spielberg's previous historical dramas, Lincoln smelled to me like dusty, dull homework, so I wasn't motivated to watch it. Would Spielberg be able to rip off the shroud of reverence that's been draped over arguably our greatest president and present something fresh or surprising? Not likely, I suspected.
Sadly Lincoln is not an example of Spielberg at the top of his form. It has some strong scenes; you would expect a director with Spielberg's flair for spectacle to nail the climactic victories, and he does. Both the legislative and battlefield triumphs are stirringly depicted, but, alas, they are the only parts of this movie that really succeed.
Daniel Day Lewis won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of the 16th president, and his performance is a marvel, but Tony Kushner's script encases him in a history exhibit: we get two-plus hours of President Lincoln's well-known traits and a couple of awkward scenes that try to humanize him by amping up his earnestness.
The bulk of the film's narrative follows Lincoln's drive to pass the 13th Amendment in Congress before the End of the Civil War. Employing a rag-tag team of political operatives to twist the arms of pliable legislators, Lincoln paces rooms, relates pithy anecdotes, scolds his squishy cabinet, pounds his fist a few times, and occasionally stands in perfectly framed silhouettes. He's not a relatably flawed hero, he's a saint desperately seeking flawed heroes to enact his noble will.
Amidst the hagiography, Spielberg and Kushner throw in some flat slapstick as Lincoln's bumbling solicitors attempt to coerce vote changes, but the worst parts of Lincoln are when Spielberg gives in to ostentatious sentimentality at both the start and end of the film. Both segments are too meta: in one, the filmmakers try to address criticisms of the celebrated president with a cute but implausible interrogation from a black shirt soldier, and in the other they disastrously attempt some clever sleight-of-hand in depicting Lincoln's assassination (which didn't even need to be included).
The good parts of Lincoln, and Day Lewis' eerily perfect visage, voice and mannerisms, make Lincoln good enough to sit through once, but it doesn't succeed in either presenting the famous President as a real, relatable person or in blowing the dust off the pages of history. It feels like Spielberg coasted through class, hoping a final project with fancy aesthetics would earn him a passing grade. Accomplished.