“Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards,” said German political and social theorist Max Weber, describing a burden experienced by many a disgruntled man and woman long before and long after he famously offered that analogy.
While no weathered or beaten man utters the phrase in Lincoln, but that would be the sentiment director Steven Spielberg would like to convey in the film, as was done in film The American President and throughout the television series The West Wing.
A more apt quote for Spieldberg’s lengthy and tempered film comes from another German, as Otto von Bismarck famously proclaimed, ‘Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.”
A very-well acted movie, led by Daniel Day Lewis playing a thoughtful, folksy, and wise President Abraham Lincoln in his second term, the film is only fascinating if you have a strange penchant for politics, or find yourself with a bitter, partisan-shaped hole in your life following the conclusion of the 2012 Presidential Election.
Though it opens with a bloody sight of the American Civil War waging on, Lincoln take place in the offices, hallways, bars, and backrooms where politics were done in 1865 just as they were done today. Substitute text message for courier, and electronic calculations for a pen and paper, and not much has changed.
It is solely about the (spoiler alert) successful passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution that outlawed slavery, as pushed by President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward. This is the film, and not so much the confrontations Lincoln has with his feisty and loopy wife, as played by Sally Field, or his defiant elder son, as played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, appearing in his 21st film this year.
James Spader and John Hawkes are funny as two-thirds of a sleazy trio used by the President to garner votes among the House of Representatives, while Hal Holbook and the curmudgeonly Tommy Lee Jones are among the many political faces of old white men. The ensemble cast also includes a slew of ‘that-guys,’ including Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, David Strathairn, and Bruce McGill (you’d know ‘em if you saw ‘em).
Motivational speeches alternate with negative rhetoric, and what we have ultimately is a story about history, painting politics in no particularly novel way. It’s filled with the same divisiveness and obstructionist we see today, as well as absurdist viewpoints held by absurdist leaders.
The bill’s eventual passage is marked triumphantly, naturally, but make not that this is not a regular biopic, and deals only with a small time frame, casually addressing the end of the civil war and Lincoln’s eventual assassination. It’s a fine film, but nothing more, and while Lewis embodies Lincoln, it seems more a vehicle for revering both the actor and the President as great, and little else. I suppose you can say the film passes, but only by barely eking it out.