People always rave about Steven Spielberg’s direction of Jaws because he barely showed the shark. This decision forced the audience to imagine for themselves what the gruesome beast looked like. Spielberg has taken this praise to heart. For in his new movie Lincoln, he does not show one of the most cinematic moments in American history, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
In 1865 at the Ford Theatre John Wilkes Boothe shot the president two times, stabbed an officer who lunged at him, then jumped from the balcony to the stage, shouted some Latin, and ran offstage to his horse which galloped him away. Now that belongs in a movie. But Spielberg has more highminded goals in this movie. He wants an Oscar and thus instead of showing Lincoln’s assassination or the Civil War battles or his hunting of vampires, Lincoln instead focuses on our sixteenth president’s attempt to enact a constituional amendment that bans slavery.
If you like watching C-span, but wished all the politicians had mutton chops, wigs, and arcane vocabularies, Lincoln is the movie for you.
Fortunately Spielberg has cast Daniel Day-Lewis to play Abraham Lincoln. After seeing this movie I am convinced Daniel Day-Lewis could read unsubtitled Chinese on screen for two hours and would still provide a riveting performance. The dialogue for Lincoln does no favors with its nineteenth century rhythm, but still the movie keeps your focus due to Day-Lewis. He plays Lincoln as almost autistic, not really listening to what anyone else has to say, but instead eagerly awaiting his chance to tell a home-spun anecdote.
At times Lincoln flirts with becoming a Saturday Night Live sketch. However serious the discussion, whether it’s staging an attack or about how hard to push to ban slavery, Lincoln’s there to tell a story. These stories might not have anything to do with anything, but because it’s Daniel Day-Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln, we listen and we nod.
Most troubling about Lincoln is the movie’s thesis that Lincoln was a great leader not because he banned slavery, but because he knew how far the people were willing to be led. Such an unpassionate message can only lead to an unpassionate movie.