Brian Henry Martin at the movies

Sinking At Lincoln

Published Thursday, 24 January 2013
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In the week that President Obama was sworn in for an historic second term, I was expecting to be overwhelmed by Steven Spielberg's anti-slavery epic, Lincoln.

Sad to say that despite the finest facial hair ever assembled on screen, I was decidedly underwhelmed and uninspired.

There is obviously great merit in telling the story of the 16th President's tumultuous final months in office, as Abraham Lincoln struggles to end the Civil War, abolish slavery and unite the States of America. This should be a gripping narrative but its not.

The film begins with no holds barred, knee deep in a brutal mud bath battle between black Union troops and white Confederate soldiers. Could this be Saving Private Ryan, Civil War style? Unfortunately not as Lincoln descends into a dull and dreary stage play, set mainly in the musty chambers of Washington DC.

This is Abraham Lincoln vote hunter, as he seeks to push through the 13th Amendment to the Constitution through the House of Representatives. The Senate had already passed this amendment outlawing slavery the previous year. US law students will be thrilled, I was bored. Historically accurate and hugely significant as all this may be, it is also entirely without suspense and had me sitting firmly in the centre of my seat.

Daniel Day-Lewis is once again a mesmerising screen presence, if a little too solemn and understated throughout. His Lincoln is technically flawless but remains remote from a fire and brimstone performance. Instead, he is a jovial 'Jackanory' President, with a succession of lengthy political anecdotes, yarns and tall tales. "No, you're going to tell a story" says Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of State for War (played by Bruce McGill): "I don't know if I can bear to listen to another one of your stories right now." Hear, hear!

The real trouble with top heavy biopics, is that the show stopping star turn enviably smothers the supporting cast. In Lincoln it goes beyond that, as the other actors seem to freeze in awe as Day-Lewis begins another long soliloquy - "As the preacher said", Lincoln explains, "I could make shorter speeches but when I start I get too lazy to stop".

Equally in awe is Spielberg's plodding camera which endlessly tracks and circles Day-Lewis in complete reverence. Veteran composer John Williams delivers another repetitive Jurassic Extra-Terrestrial score, which when heard should be accompanied by a caption flashing "Emote! Emote".

Only Tommy Lee Jones sparks the film to life with a typical grouchy performance as anti-slavery abolisher Thaddeus Stevens. Badly bewigged and bedraggled Jones cuts through the political bluster to deliver the films most entertaining lines.

Lincoln's clunkiest scenes are reserved for the father of the nation at home. Sadly Sally does Dallas, as actress Sally Field is a misfiring Miss Ellie as Mary Todd Lincoln. Her soapy performance is completely overwrought, her babbling dialogue incomprehensible and she looks more like Lincoln's mother than his wife; Field is 66, while the real First Lady was twenty years younger at the time of these events. And disappointingly, the talented Joseph Gordon-Lewitt also catches the daytime bug and badly overacts as hot-tempered son Robert Lincoln (and again is ten years too old for the role).

Lincoln has been nominated for twelve Academy Awards and may well win a top hat full. But for me, Abraham Lincoln and the success of this film will remain a mystery.

Lincoln (Cert 12a) is on general release

© UTV News
B. H. Martin
B. H. Martin

Brian Henry Martin is an accomplished documentary filmmaker and UTV's resident film critic, appearing regularly on UTV Live Tonight.

No matter what the film, there's a good chance Brian has seen it.


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