Lincoln is a worthy and workmanlike film which ultimately lacks the dramatic power and memorability which would make it a great one.
In the extra material, the director spoke about the difficulty of making a conventional biopic of such a monumental figure – the subject was simply too vast. Instead, they decided to focus on a single episode – getting the 13th Amendment approved by the requisite two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives – and use this as a device to explore Lincoln the man, Lincoln the lawyer, Lincoln the politician and Lincoln the statesman.
So far, so good – a bit like Shakespeare exploring the character of Julius Caesar through the last few days of his life – but the result is a lovingly crafted documentary rather than a compelling drama. It may be that, paradoxically, we already know too much about both the man and the period through documents, photographs and artefacts.
Visually – and film is after all a visual medium – it’s exquisite. Rooms are recreated from contemporary photographs, costumes have been meticulously researched to the extent, in some cases, of using original fabrics; lighting and colours are suitably muted. The same goes for the sound – Washington DC not only looks but sounds authentic and the same attention has clearly been paid to the the authentic use of language. Unfortunately, it’s the language that let’s it down.
Quite why the language fails, I’m not sure. Were debates and public speeches taken from original transcripts? Were private conversations based on diaries, letters and other written sources? If so, then perhaps that’s the problem. The script is simply dull and lacks the spontaneity and liveliness of spoken interactions. It tells a story of political wheeler-dealering at the heart of what was a, literally, critical moment in the history of a nation and, indeed Western political thought and makes it about as exciting as the seven times table.