Best Cultural Homework Movie of 2012

I told a friend that I had a dream the other night, and in it a well-known critic was murdered. It was a horrible dream. A kind of nightmare really. The friend suggested that the critic was being dispatched because he’s a fan of Lincoln. I laughed and said “that’s funny,” but I reminded her that I’ve never hated Lincoln. I hate the Lincoln Best Picture talk — that’s the difference.

I reminded her that I gave Lincoln a passing grade in my initial review….a pass with reservations. A good, intelligent film that is also a doleful, talky, slow, ponderous civics lesson. Plus that hateful Janusz Kaminski lighting scheme as a kicker. Yeesh.

“But there are worse films than Lincoln that could win Best Picture,” my friend replied. “Good intentions and all of that. Lincoln has made $120 million at the box office and is the highest grossing film so far of the Best Picture nominees. You can’t just discard that.”

My response: “People are going en masse because the legend of Abraham Lincoln has been drilled into them since they were 7 or 8 years old. It’s not the movie, really — it’s the man and the Steven Spielberg brand assurance and the Daniel Day Lewis performance. Nobody is truly aroused or turned on by that film…no one. They’re going because they feel it’s something they ought to do — it’s a kind of cultural duty — and because it’s about the great Abraham Lincoln and because they know that all Spielberg films are safe and schmaltzy and intelligent in their fashion.

“And so they go and they sit and watch like an obedient congregation, and then the lights come up and they stand up and trudge out with those blank or grim expressions (I’ve seen them so don’t tell me), and they tell each other afterwards that DDL was really good (which he is) and yaddah-yaddah. Lincoln is no one’s idea of an ecstatic or rousing or head-turning experience. You know it and I know it. It’s a kind of homework movie that audiences feel they should go see because we’ve all received the Lincoln legend, and we don’t feel we can ignore it or wait for the DVD or the Netflix download.

“It’s a better-than-decent film, I agree, but people have gotten carried away by the awards talk and because they’re saying ‘how can we go wrong if we give the movie about the great Abraham Lincoln our Best Picture award?’ It’s on that level rather than ‘oh,my God, this film is so great…I’ve seen it three times and I could see it again.'”

  • Bix B-Roll

    Why say “nobody?” Over and over, this “nobody is turned on by Lincoln” thing… The hyperbole makes your whole argument invalid and kind of embarrassing.

    I loved Lincoln. Truly. People I know, whom I’ve had long conversations with about the film, loved Lincoln. We aren’t simpletons, or suckers who are intellectually deluding ourselves, though I guess that’s how you’ll dismiss us. I saw a sensitive, complex and moving human story about how our country works, and the impact committed people can have.

    You’re obviously trying desperately to have an impact in the Oscar race, which is a fine (if pointless) goal to have, so a word of advice– abandon the “nobody” line. It’s just endlessly obnoxious, and makes you seem truly small-minded.

  • Sasha Stone

    He didn’t include my response to his last bit, fair is fair:

    “Don’t believe that for a second. Everyone in my family liked the movie, from my daughter to my 9 year old niece, my mom, both my sisters, even my grumpy brother in law who hates everything.

    Not going to talk you into it because I am so sick of people trying to do that with Les Miserables, which is a stinker. you didn’t like Lincoln – I get it. But you are wrong as to why it’s making so much money. Just flat out wrong. Sure, that’s part of it – it’s history but it’s also getting great word of mouth. Just because the intellectuals at the NY Times didn’t like it doesn’t mean squat. Not to me, not to awards voters. Do I think it will win? I don’t know. Can it win? Sure. Only two other movies can at this point: Argo, Silver Linings Playbook. From the looks of it, if things don’t change, that’s the race. I think Lincoln can beat both. But we’ll have to wait and see. I’m not putting out there as a solid 100% until the DGA.”

  • Frank O’File

    Where to begin? First, evaluating a movie through an Oscar prism. Is it not possible to say, Oscars or no, LINCOLN is a very good movie?

    Secondly, Bix had it right. Lots of people love the movie. I do. I found the match of Kushner’s screenplay, the actors who reveled in it, and Spielberg’s respect for them, to be exhilarating.

    Lastly, Jeff, let’s try this tactic on you: “What Jeff felt when he saw the movie was that he enjoyed it but had to rationalize admiration for Spielberg movie.” Did you enjoy having someone disparage your motives? Did you like it when your opinion was condescended to? Probably not. Well, your readers don’t like it when you pull the same trick.

  • Gaydos

    I think there’s an implicit question in all of this.

    Can you really like LINCOLN, maybe even see it as the best of the lot this year for the Best Picture Oscar and STILL be troubled by A.O. Scott’s use of the term “masterpiece” to describe it?

    Perhaps there’s a larger question: when do you drag out the “M” word and when do you hold that baby in reserve?

  • Stewart Klein

    Better than decent? I don’t think so. It is decent as a History Channal doc when Pawn Stars isn’t on. Everything that Jeff said about it is true. I even find DDL’s performance a bit overpraised. The film only comes alive when Sally Field or Tommyu Lee Jones is onscreen. and during the final vote where DDL isn’t even there. And I mostly like spielberg’s. films. I would watch War Horse five times over before watching Lincoln once more. Argo and SLP are better films and Visually, spiritually, and overall viscerally satisfying on so many levels is the best film of the year, The Life of PI. This is the film that should be the recipient of the Newton Conn.blowback against the others that Jeff posted about the other day. and if I wan’t to see a movie this year about our greatest president, I’ll go see Hyde Park on the Hudson..

  • cinefan

    Wells’ arguments about Lincoln’s box office success are pure garbage (existing only in his mind), as other commentators have pointed out. A lot of people that I have talked to who have seen the film love it and are passionately in support of it for Best Picture.

    If SLP had even half of the emotional or Box Office support that Lincoln had, it would be much more of a factor in the Oscar race.

  • CBJ

    Sasha, I’m not sure which intellectuals you’re referring to but A.O. Scott liked “Lincoln”, and, if I recall, Dargis did too.

  • ghost of a ghost

    Please note, the fellow complaining today that Lincoln is “safe” and “schmaltzy” is the same fellow who yesterday mocked the concept of a humanist war movie.