Spielberg’s Lincoln

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, written by Tony Kushner, was neglected at the 2013 Oscars except for recognition for Daniel Day-Lewis’ stunning performance and a craft award for production design.

When it was released I pegged it as a worthy and important film, filled with fascinating historical detail– but also as ponderous and episodic. The film suffers from the same problems Spielberg had with War Horse and Amistad.

War Horse was the definition of an episodic narrative with very little character development. A brave courageous boy acquires a brave courageous horse, the boy loses horse, he is determined to find horse again, he succeeds, and brings the horse home. A goal is set and we watch it being accomplished step-by-step. Read my review of War Horse here.

In Lincoln, a bold visionary president wants to pass a bold visionary bill to emancipate the slaves in the South, he is determined to do this at all costs (and is willing to do whatever back room deals are necessary to push his agenda forward). We watch him step-by-step accomplish his goal.

Daniel Day-Lewis does give the performance of a lifetime in Lincoln. He is stunning and astonishing in the role but his performance is most of the character development that there is in the story. Lincoln is not a fully developed protagonist. He has no inner conflict. Lincoln overcomes nothing in himself to succeed.

There is plenty of external conflict in the battleground horrors of the American Civil War. There is a tremendous amount of relationship conflict– different people in the story clash with each other over every aspect of the political situation. But there is no personal inner conflict for Lincoln. He is very clear and determined about what he wants to accomplish, he shrewdly proceeds to make it happen, and he succeeds.

The person in the film that has a real protagonist’s journey is Tommy Lee Jones in the role of Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens spent his political life advocating for total Negro emancipation, including the right to vote and own property. He was adamant and uncompromising. In the final, down-to-the-wire vote-taking, Stevens must turn his back on everything he has always stood for in order to assure that Lincoln’s lesser bill passes. Steven’s struggles mightily with his conscience but finally allows practicality to win. When the bill passes Stevens takes the original copy home to his Negro wife/mistress and we see his dedication to freedom comes from a very personal place.

This problem with identifying the protagonist is reminiscent with an equal failure in Spielberg’s The Terminal.  In that film a minor character had the most emotional impact and made the biggest emotional sacrifice.  Read my review of The Terminal here.

In Amistad, Spielberg told too large a story. That film detailed the capture of a ship piloted by slaves who mutinied against their masters. The situation resulted in several trials and appeals to determine their freedom. The story was filled with fascinating historical detail but those details over complicated the story.

Amistad, like Lincoln, was populated by numerous interesting characters but didn’t have a central strong personal journey. The strongest, most emotionally intimate journey in Lincoln is Thaddeus Steven’s. Lincoln is beautifully cast and wonderful to look at but, for me, is more a history lesson than a personal story.


  1. Reply Neil Landau 15th January 2013

    I totally agree. I believe you’ve hit the nail right on the head. Maybe that’s why I was so bored with what I’d anticipated to be a phenomenal film.

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 15th January 2013

      Thanks Neil– A worthy effort but not emotionally compelling in my book.

  2. Reply Howard Suber 16th January 2013

    I agree. Part of the problem may be structural: when you choose to start your story shortly before someone’s death, the issues of his/her life are pretty much set and major character change is unlikely. Part of the problem may also be demonstrated by the attacks on other historically-based films out today: the wolves are poised on all sides waiting to attack you for your errors of fact or interpretation. This can become so paralyzing that you end up with wooden tableau, which are sprinkled throughout LINCOLN.

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 18th January 2013

      Thanks Howard– I agree about the structural problems. And wooden tableaus. It will be interesting to see how the film does overseas. That’s the real test since so much box office now comes from abroad. I think Americans bring a lot of emotion to the story which helps fill in the gaps– others won’t be able to do that to the same extent. I don’t think the story is strong enough to carry foreign viewers– but we will see. But maybe Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance will help save the day. Time will tell.

  3. Reply Carol Cumming 16th March 2013

    I’ve watched Lincoln in Australia and despite the great performance thought it was only OK, not mind blowing. It feels like The West Wing in period costume – without any unresolved sexual tension to spice it up! And as our current days are filled with this kind of political wheeling and dealing, it didn’t reveal much that was new. It didn’t transport me to another world, just reminded me of what we see on the news each day.
    As you say, Laurie, it lacked inner conflict, glossing over the fact that Lincoln had slaves of his own. My favourite scenes were the domestic ones. I always love giant scale problems set against what’s happening over the dinner table.
    But still glad to have seen it and will certainly put Lincoln on my list of people to have for dinner when they invent the time machine.