Spielberg’s Lincoln: Brilliant, Yes, but a Little Shaky on the Dismount

It’s easy to take Steven Spielberg’s mad directing skills for granted. A biopic about a larger-then-life character doing great things for humanity? For Spielberg, it’s like falling off a log.

But darned if Lincoln, sure-fire hit though it is, isn’t also engrossing, illuminating and yes, brilliant. Once you sort through the thousands of actors with beards, a virtual cornucopia of HITGs, you find vivid, believable characters, intelligent talk, and even some humor.

Daniel Day-Lewis is also predictably genius at embodying the iconic Lincoln, managing to stick to the basics while still infusing him with humanity.

About the only surprise is how contemporary the film feels despite all the Civil War-era trappings. Politics one-hundred and fifty years ago was the same dance of cynicism, brinksmanship, and some people actually trying to do good as it is today.  Even knowing the outcome of the battles, Lincoln’s hard-won victories are still a relief.

My only nitpick: Spielberg should have ended the film a little sooner, a common problem with his movies. (See below.) Mild spoiler: there’s a moment just prior to the tragic end of Lincoln’s life that would’ve been a perfect place to cut to the credits.

But this is a niggle. Everyone involved delivers a satisfying and sturdy film.

Five out of Five Stars
Spielberg’s Problem with Endings




Saving Private Ryan
The most powerful moment in an incredibly powerful film comes when Captain Miller, knowing he’s done for, grabs Ryan and says, “Earn this,” on his dying breath. Miller’s simple, urgent message was meant as a dark valentine to the sacrifices of the World War II generation and all those who die in war so that others might live. The story ended there, and a poetic afternote would’ve been to cut back to aged Ryan at Miller’s grave. We would’ve felt, rather than been preached, the point. Ryan’s question–“Have I earned this? Has any of us?–would’ve been subtextual, as it should’ve been. The overt, sobbing breakdown, the shoving of the powerful message in the audiences faces, was authorial intrusion at its most aggressively annoying.
Movie with ending: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Without the ending: 5 out of 5 Stars

Schindler’s List
Oskar Schindler’s third-act breakdown–on his knees in the dirt, sobbing, bemoaning that he hadn’t saved more Jews–probably never happened. It shouldn’t have happened in this otherwise excellent film. Why? Because we get it. Got it. Good. Spielberg’s skills as a filmic storyteller are breathtaking here. But he doesn’t seem to trust himself and instead sentimentalizes and trivializes Schindler’s character. Pounding the audience over the head with the powerful moral message of we all should do more to fight evil actually weakens and cheapens it. A simple, sad rub of the gold coin would have been much more reflective of the complex and compromised heroics at the core of the film.
Movie with ending: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Without the ending: 5 out of 5 Stars

Spielberg was filming Stanley Kubrick’s script here and apparently the fourth-act startover was mostly Kubrick’s idea. Too bad. The first three quarters of the film are about the mysteries of being human and android David’s quest to become a real boy. His story seems to end and theater audiences were gathering their belongings when a voice starts narrating from the future. We learn the fate of the world, even if we weren’t really wondering. It’s a jarring and ultimately damaging foray into not knowing when to end your story. Wouldn’t it have been better to close on David trapped beneath the ocean, forever staring at the Blue Fairy, yearning to be human? What’s more human than pining for a dream you can never have?

Movie with ending: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Without the ending: 5 out of 5 Stars

Spielberg explains the ending of AI on YouTube.
Granted, it’s difficult to mess with the original intentions of your friend who died and entrusted you with his work. I maintain the story would have been stronger without the ending.

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