Continuing a tradition that started with last year’s surprise unveiling of the then-unfinished Hugo, the New York Film Festival this week revealed a first look at a work-in-progress cut of Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln.

Though we’ve seen little of the film so far, aside from a couple of trailers, the subject matter and the talent involved have marked it from early on as a potential Oscar contender. Based on the version I saw Monday night, that buzz is well-earned — it’s tough to imagine this film coming out the other end of awards season without at least a couple of little gold men. On the other hand, Spielberg falters by letting the Sixteenth President remain more myth than man, and the resulting film is a polished period piece that only occasionally feels truly vital.

At its best, Lincoln is nothing short of great. Incredible performances, led by Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, breathe new life into figures familiar from history textbooks, and a welcome sense of humor punches up the proceedings. But Spielberg never quite manages to help Lincoln down from the pedestal he’s occupied lo these many years, which keeps the character at an emotional distance. In addition, superfluous subplots and dry partisan discussion make some of the setup scenes a bit of a slog to get through.

Set in early 1865, four years into the Civil War and four months before Lincoln’s assassination, the main thread is Lincoln’s attempt to push the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolishes slavery, through the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, at home, Lincoln’s marriage to Mary Todd (Sally Field) is strained by the death of their son Willie three years prior, and their eldest son Robert Todd (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is furious at his parents’ refusal to let him go to war.

Perhaps Lincoln’s best asset is its stupendous cast. Just about every character actor you can think of and then some makes an appearance here, from young up-and-comers like Dane DeHaan and Adam Driver to seasoned pros like Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, and David Strathairn. Some are used better than others. Gordon-Levitt is sadly forgettable in the movie’s most pointless subplot, which in theory should add to our understanding of Lincoln the man but in practice amounts a few generic scenes of father-son bickering. A handful of black characters appear around the edges (David Oyelowo, Gloria Reuben, and S. Epatha Merkerson among them), but despite having the most personal stake in the legislation, they have little to do but look concerned and then grateful.

Fortunately, the list of actors who get to shine is much longer. As a trio of old-timey consultants hired by Lincoln to obtain the House votes by any shady means necessary, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and especially James Spader steal every scene they’re in. (As my colleague Christopher Rosen noted on Twitter, they’d make for an awesomely entertaining spinoff.) Lee Pace plays slimy Democrat Fernando Wood with obvious relish, and David Costabile (Breaking Bad‘s Gale Boetticher!) brings heart to the more contentious political arguments. And Tommy Lee Jones, playing sharp-tongued Republican Thaddeus Stevens, fairly crackles in an Oscar-worthy turn.

It certainly helps Jones’ odds that he gets most of the zestiest lines in Tony Kushner‘s script. Kushner knows how to turn a phrase, and his words are never more enjoyable than when a politician is spitting them at a rival. (Lee Pace tends to be the most frequent receipient of Jones’ vitriol, but many other Democrats get zinged good and hard.) Kushner’s stage roots aren’t always so helpful, however. A well-written monologue is a thing of beauty, but a constant barrage of them yields diminishing returns. The talkiness is particularly problematic in the film’s first half, when we’re still getting to know the many, many characters and sort out which one we need to keep track of for later on.

Spielberg’s most interesting insight in Lincoln has to do with the methods by which the Amendment was passed — which, it turns out, weren’t always on the up-and-up. Politicians then were every bit as petty and partisan as they are today, and the anti-slavery faction in Lincoln is willing to flatter, compromise, bribe, and threaten if that means accomplishing a greater good. It’s a refreshingly honest view of the way deals get made in D.C., one that no doubt still applies today. So it’s a little frustrating that Spielberg never fully engages with the ethical issues that these tactics raise. All of this cajoling is happening with Lincoln’s distant approval, but Lincoln himself is removed from the down-and-dirty bits — a savvy political move, perhaps, but a frustrating narrative one.

Indeed, Lincoln’s biggest flaw is that it fails to shed new light on the American icon. Day-Lewis disappears into another masterful performance, but Spielberg never seems to see the character as a flesh-and-blood man. The movie tries to add a few touches of warmth to Lincoln, notably in his (sometimes annoying) penchant for homespun anecdotes, and he’s allowed to get downright fiery when he’s filled with the righteousness of his cause. But what humanizes a character are flaws and weaknesses, and we see little of that. Had Spielberg allowed Lincoln to be a little more vulnerable, Lincoln might have been a more powerful movie.

[Note: As this report is based on an unfinished cut, we have decided not to include a rating for Lincoln.]

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