Lincoln: Proficient, But a Lot Less Humane

Being virtuous and being interesting are two different qualities. Because while the former stands for all things correct and noble, the latter stands for things that captivate us, makes us wanting for more. And this becomes especially paramount, when a movie is biographical. As a lot hinges on the protagonist, because he’s the one who guides us through his journey and it becomes all the more interesting if it’s punctuated by stumbling feet, false decisions, and moments of self-doubts. Although that does not imply that it’s the only way a biographical movie should be carved out, it’s just that a tumultuous journey showcases tension that much more effectively. And hence more than adept film-making, biographical movies primarily depend a lot on who the movie is about.

Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, Lincoln, as can be easily discerned from the title, is about one of the most important president in American history. And amongst the various events in his presidential tenure, the movie chooses to concentrate on the most significant event – the passing of the 13th Amendment, a bill responsible for abolishing slavery. Most events affect a country in the present, very few events have the power to shape the destiny of a country. The passing of 13th Amendment was one such event.


The movie begins in the year 1865, when Abraham Lincoln has been elected for the second term in the office. Lincoln is worried about 13thAmendment seeing the light of the day, and the people around him are not enthusiastic either. They need 20 republican votes to swing the house in their favor. Since the movie concentrates on just a final few months of Lincoln’s life, the titular character as such here is mostly stagnant. He doesn’t grow, fall or stumble in our eyes, and that’s something that ails the movie in its first hour. Where Spielberg devotes a lot of time, not on exploring what drives the main character, but rather what happens around him, for instance, his party members canvassing for the bill by persuading the republicans.

It’s only when Spielberg starts concentrating on Lincoln the man, does the movie’s emotional contour begins getting prominent. For a man so visible and ubiquitous in public space, the exploration of his personal life is interesting – his relationship with his elder son, which borders on benign ignorance, relegating him to a cocoon, and the relationship with his wife which contains ample emotional scars which have not yet been healed by time.

And in between all this, stands a character whose portrayal is central to the movie – Lincoln. Daniel Day-Lewis plays the part with unreserved aplomb. He lights up every frame he’s in, ingeniously mixing wit, passiveness, charm, perspicacity, and a willingness to digress. The performance is all the more fascinating as there’s no aforementioned concrete arc to his character. It’s a sort of role that the jury at Academy Awards adores, and he’s not only likely to get a nomination, but also the final nod. Although for me, the stand-out performance of the year has easily been Joaquin Phoenix’s role in Master, but given his unflattering comments against the Academy last month, Day-Lewis should probably saunter with an award.

Even if not taut enough, Lincoln is quite assured film-making from Spielberg, but even then at times, it feels a lot mechanical, a lot clinical for it’s own good. It’s also a lot less humane, weighed down heavily by the politics, thereby adding little to the drama and keeping us, at most times at an arm’s length from the protagonist. We would like to get closer, but Spielberg’s sheepishness keeps coming in the way. And when Spielberg should have kept us at an arm’s length, he chooses to let us in. The merit of a movie’s climax is escalated by the fact that the film-maker chooses to conceal more, and reveal us. Especially in a movie like this, because here everyone knows the end. Reiterating it in a history textbook fashion doesn’t quite cut it. In a fitting way it’s quite symbolic to the entire movie. The smooth edges are not always required. At times, serrated edges would do just fine.

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