On Lincoln, Spielberg, And Crushing Boredom

One of the inconcievably vast number of brain-rapingly awful things about Indiana Jones And The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull was Steven Spielberg’s boring direction, evident in every boring frame he shot. Apparently impressed by Lucas’s ability to direct three Star Wars movies without leaving his living room, he directed it, minus a few exteriors, from his living room. His total uninterest in the movie shone brightly in every scene.

I chalked it up to this movie in particular. How could anyone care about another Indiana Jones movie? Much as we might wish Harrison Ford was young and gave a fuck about acting, he’s not and he doesn’t. He gave up giving fucks a long, long time ago, and Spielberg was right there with him, which was odd, since even in the worst Spielberg movies, i.e. most of them, one tends to be impressed with his skill at moving the camera, with the beauty of the images, with the one and only thing Spielberg has ever known and cared about: directing movies.

So I thought Spielberg’s boredom was due to directing a script for a sequel he never wanted to make that read like a rejected episode of the X-Files. But it turns out the problem runs deeper. Spielberg has given up on movies altogether.

My evidence? Lincoln. If Spielberg cared even remotely about directing, this is a movie he would have cared about. It’s written by a lauded playwright (Tony Kushner), based (however vaguely) on a monumental Lincoln history (Doris Goodwin’s Team of Rivals), and deals with a Massively Important Historical Event, the passing of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. And yet, despite all this, Lincoln is, to be kind, so bad that if there had been, say, a number of steak knives close at hand in the theater, I would have stabbed them into my eyeballs until I’d bled out and died.

You think I’m kidding? Fine. Go sit through all 150 minutes of Lincoln. I dare you.

The movie plays like a History Channel special. From the opening scene, a couple minutes of Civil War fighting in a mud pit, I knew I was in trouble. It looked bad. Dreadful, even. Was this the same director and cinematographer (Janusz Kaminski) who’d shot soldiers storming the beach at Normandy? I didn’t even like Saving Private Ryan, but those battle scenes were incredible. The brief fight that opens Lincoln would have sent me to the cable clicker had I come across it on the sofa at 3 a.m. I would have switched with glee to the scene in Star Trek: The Motion Picture where Kirk and Scotty get their first glimpse of the Enterprise (which I happened upon last night at 3 a.m. and couldn’t turn away from. Which scene, if you’re unfamiliar, lasts almost 10 minutes in what may be the most profoundly boring movie of all time. I suggest renting it immediately).

Star Trek: The Motionless Picture

After that it’s one monotonous scene after another. Kushner is a fancy-pants playwright? This is surprising. Looks to me like he’s been studying up at the David Koepp School of Paint-By-Numbers Screenwriting, where every line of dialogue is expositional, where no one feels anything, they just make speeches telling us that they’re feeling things. The movie is all speeches. Someone argues something, someone else argues the other side, then Lincoln tells a story of the time a man he once knew did that thing he did, and everyone nods sagely, because slavery is bad.

Yes. Slavery is bad. We can all agree on that. Those who don’t aren’t seeing this movie. They’re busy trying to secede from the Union. So the story itself is as lazy as Spielberg’s direction. It’s the easiest sell in the world. The movie takes place over the brief period after Lincoln’s re-election and prior to his inauguration, long after the Emancipation Proclamation. It was earlier in his presidency that he struggled with whether or not to make slavery an issue in the war. In this movie he wants to abolish slavery from the get-go. And yes, fine, he struggles with whether or not to delay a southern peace delegation to make sure the bill passes, but it’s presented as a no-brainer. The actors are enacting history, they aren’t living it.

Is Daniel Day Lewis good? Let’s just say the man is a tree who shits bears on the Pope. If you see what I mean. He’s a freak of acting nature. In Lincoln he gives what I’ll call a very thoughtful performance. Too bad it’s this boring movie he gives it in. As much humanity as he gives his Lincoln, he still comes off something of an animatronic HistoryBot fulfilling his historical duty.

I’m not even going to start on poor Sally Field. She comes across as well as Karen Allen did in the Crystal Skull. It just feels embarassing to be watching her weirdly placed, stilted scenes. And James Spader looks like he ate a moose. Did he double in size since I last checked in? Okay, that was uncalled for. He was good. It’s just that I spent the whole movie thinking, “Who’s that actor? He looks like a fat James Spader.” Sorry, James, if you’re reading this, which you aren’t, but who knows, someone else does, they see you at a party, they talk, it could happen.

you dang kids strike that baby before i whup yas!

Meanwhile, as I was saying, visually it’s a mess. Since A.I. Spielberg has become increasingly obsessed with Kubrick’s use in interiors of bright white light shining in from outside. In A.I. it was kind of cool, and appropriate, and Spielberg and Kaminski made it look good. In Lincoln, it’s awful. It looks like they just wheeled some spotlights up behind all the windows. It’s baffling. Harsh shadows are everywhere. Faces are blasted out. I have no idea what effect they were trying for. It feels like they weren’t trying at all. The whole movie looks amatuerish. This isn’t helped by the editing, sloppy and inconsistent, yet also done by a pro, Michael Kahn. Were all of these guys sleepwalking through this thing? Was it a rushed production? Or were they only following Spielberg’s lead?

The ending is classic Spielberg. The days of Raiders are long, long gone. No Spielberg movie is allowed an ambiguous or, dare I say it, ominous ending. Lincoln’s off to the theater, and he has a great last line, which I don’t remember, but something like, “I hate to leave, I have so much left to do,” and he walks down a long hallway away from us, watched by his kindly old black servant, and then is there a nice fade to black? No. There’s a scene where his son learns he’s been shot. A scene of Lincoln dead. And finally a flashback to Lincoln delivering his famed second inaugural. Gotta go out on a high note in a Spielberg flick.

And so. Lincoln is a rote feel-good movie, dull and uninspired, no better than 1941 or Hook, and in a way worse for its heavy-handed importance. Spielberg’s one-time talents are nowhere to be found. If he’s stopped caring about making movies, why is he still making them? Steven, my dear old friend, if you run into James Spader at a party and he tells you about a guy who told him about this post, please consider hanging up your movie-directing hat. You’re not doing us any favors putting out clunkers like this, and you’re not doing yourself any either. Well, aside from gorging on your millions and dancing in the shower of Oscars sure to rain down upon you. Other than that, however, there’s no point. So cut it out.

18 responses on “On Lincoln, Spielberg, And Crushing Boredom

  1. I saw Lincoln and loved it. In fact I’ve seen it three times, and am still finding details in it that I missed during the previous viewings. The acting throughout was superb, though I must agree that Sally Field was probably my least favorite performance.

    Recently I saw some publicity interviews with James Spader; he has probably lost 25 or 30 pounds since this film. The weight was great for the character, but now he has slimmed up again. You’re probably safe even if he hears about the “moose” comment.

  2. what’s your favourite Spielberg film. I think for me it would be Raiders but I really like Jurassic Park too.

    And is it just me or would Minority Report have been a much better film if Tom Cruise had actually killed Max von Sydow at the end of Minority Report in a fit of rage.It would have been way better.

    Talking of endngs, I felt the same when I saw State of Play, Russel Crowes character should have died at the end or maybe it was Affleck, but I felt like they pussied out of killing off one of the stars. Not watched it since it was released.

    sorry for the digression.

    Also I prefer The Thin Red Line to Saving Private Ryan.

    • The British TV series “State of Play” was interesting (it pre-dated the film) but not interesting enough to make me watch a stupid American remake.

      I have not and will not see Lincoln. Biopics have become the refuge of charlatans and fools. It is as if no one making one has ever met a real person in their life.

  3. yes on The Thin Red Line. watched it recently for the first time since it came out and loved it even more.

    Raiders and Jaws are my favorite Spielberg movies.

    many things might have been done to Minority Report to make it not suck. as usual, Spielberg took out all the gray areas that make the conceit of the film interesting, and left us with a black and white bunch of crap.

    gald to hear Spader was only pulling a DeNiro. of course, why he gained all that weight for like 10 minutes of screen time is another question.

  4. I’m not sure he gained it for the movie, although it did really work for this character. But, he has since lost the weight.

  5. I totally agree with this review. I couldn’t even sit through the entire movie. We both left at 1 hr 45 minutes because we were SO freaking bored. The movie tells instead of shows everything. It’s all talk. I wanted to agree with the guy that said “Not another story!” Lincoln’s character, and in fact the whole movie, was so overdone it was just annyoing.

  6. This movie is insulting to your intelligence from the very first scene. It is insulting to Lincoln, to history and to my stunted sentimentality. My heart strings are dangling just out of Spielberg’s reach…

    should have ended before the assassination; it’s inclusion just drove home how cloying is the general bent of what should have been a great movie.

    I could not stop wishing that it would just segue into a Ken Burns style doc and just get to the point…

    poor Sally Field…poor, poor Sally Field…

    /jcw

  7. Supreme Being,
    I am with you all the way (save your choice of name.?) I stayed through the film even though I was bored out of my mind too and wanted to do anything but sit through it. You see, I was one among the sheep ensconsed in a huge crowd of trusting movie goers, and being that gun sales went up shortly after another horrific attack on innocent and defenseless people, I chose not to startle people by suddenly standing up to leave.

    You never do know, anymore.

    At the risk of insulting a cinema guro; I fully blame the directing. None of the talents of these great actors were set off properly so that they could rightfully shine. You said it better than I ever could, the staging alone obliterated all visual possibilities. Instead of an exquisitly handcrafted setting that lets the stones show their true beauty, it struck me as more of a cheesy showcase for Daniel Day Lewis, to look merely like…..an actor…well…..acting, but just in case Spielberg doesn’t know it: it never works having one actor, even playing one of our greatest Americans of all time, carry the entire film.

    The juxtiposition of incongruous dialogue spanning the idioms and slang of the ages, frankly made me wince at what might come out whenever anyone opened his/her mouth. It also failed to convince me of anything I wasn’t already convinced of save that my life is infinitely more interesting than watching ‘Lincoln’.

    The one thing I’ve learned from all this, is Hollywood is indeed fixed,
    12 oscar nominations, am I right? I guess making false claims is ok if it will pay California’s debt brought to you by yours truly; Hollywood’s debt creators.

    Thank you for the much needed laugh. I especially liked the eyeball comment!

    • glad to have entertained, thanks for stopping by. Lincoln is indeed a sad statement on what passes for ‘intelligent’ movies for adults. as usual with these sorts of things, no independent thinking is required.

      as for my interweb sobriquet, you’ll like it better if you go watch Time Bandits immediately. in fact, most troubles you or anyone has with anything in the world may be most easily eased by immediately watching Time Bandits…something to do with free will, i think…

  8. I didn’t mean to insult your choice of name or anything. I just can’t help associating it with the German/Niezsche obsession with ubermensch. But I suppose my being ignorant of Time Bandits, I’m not the audience you are seeking. I’m sure you’re right I’d have a different or possibly even fond association with the name if I knew the show. And perhaps I am the only person left in the world that is offended by the idea it conjures up for me. Heck, a good discussion on free will? I’m always game.

    I’ll have to check the bandits out!
    Cheers!

  9. I saw the film last night and totally agree it was a total bore from end to end with zero enterntainment value. I thought I was going to see a film about Lincoln not a period drama solely focused on the 13th ammendment. The political dialogue is extremely tedious and without any sub-plots and any kind of action its boring. beyond believe. This Lincoln is pumped up to be the perfect divine being and not believable as a polition. I couldn’t wait for him to get shot and end the tradegy.

  10. sadly the longest 3 hours (with trailers) of my life – had a numb bum but stuck with it waiting for it to improve…….i can only liken it to being stuck on an airplane while it circles waiting to land, staring out of the window at cloud formations……….

  11. I wish I had read this post before I watched the stupid movie… I was never so bored in my entire life… Struggled to keep my eyes open past the first 15 minutes, then I fell sleep and noticed that the guys sitting in front of me were sleeping too… I don’t understand how a lifeless boring movie like this can win so many oscars…

  12. I am thrilled (even if it is belated) to find that I am not the only person that thought Lincoln was a lot of Tripe. But, I will go further and say that Daniel Day Lewis’s performance was a bad caracature of Henry Fonda’s Lincoln.
    This films was such a god awful bore it shows that Speilberg has lost his touch. Catch Me if You Can was his last decent film. Once he cast Tom Hanks as a Russian, I knew it was all over.
    Wrap it up Steven and make room for your protege, J.J. Abrams. or better yet, make way for Christopher Nolan….a true film maker. Maybe the only major filmaker with any values left in the art of filmaking.

    • Spielberg may have a touch, but it’s too bad that touch rarely results in anything beyond good sequences in otherwise lousy movies (you might check out my 10 Best Spielberg Movies post, if you’d like to hear me yammer on at length on the matter).

      As for Abrams, he’s yet to direct a good movie. I’m not believing the hype on this guy at all. Curious to see if ever develops his own personality, or continues making other peoples’ movies (MI3, Star Trek, Star Wars).

      And Nolan, I just don’t know anymore. That last Batman was such a dud, and having anything to do with Man of Steel is a bad sign indeed. But sure, he at least makes his own original ideas too. I hope his next one is better than Inception.

Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man.