“Lincoln’s” last act (spoilers… I guess?)
“Lincoln” was a good film. I think it could be a very good one, once it’s done marinating in my mind. For the most part, Spielberg stayed out of the way, made it pretty, let a splendid cast do their thing, told a naturally compelling story without trying to force significance upon us.
But that ending. Sweet heavens, Steven, what was that business? We all knew the movie had to end with Lincoln’s assassination. And given how spending 2 and a half hours with a Lincoln played by Daniel Day Lewis had made me particularly fond of this particular Lincoln, well, I was geared up to quite saddened by the inevitable end. That’s not easy to do. Biopics tend to have a mechanical coldness to them. “Lincoln” was lively and entertaining, and it swept me into its rhythms and made me invested at a level beyond simply rooting for Lincoln because he’s Lincoln. I rooted for Lincoln in this film because he was a superb character in this film.
The reveal, at a musical that Abe’s son Tad is attending, just felt cheap. I can understand why Spielberg took that route. The events in the film are accurate. Tad was seeing a musical at another theatre when his father was assassinated, and learned of the assassination when the show was stopped by the theatre manager.
Talking about it with my sister, she felt Spielberg must have been taken with the idea of the potential power for a scene like this. And there was potential power. Except it was robbed by virtue of it being a completely unnecessary bait and switch. The film clearly expects us to think that the play, established in the scene’s opening shots, in the one Abe is attending.
By the time Spielberg pulls his reveal (which, again, is completely unnecessary) he reveals that Lincoln has been killed. Cut to his dead body on his deathbed. Cut to an ending speech (with an odd transition shot of Abe floating inside a candle flame, the primary instance of Spielberg letting his cornier instincts get the better of him. End of the movie. No reflection on how earth-shattering this event is for the film’s massive cast of characters, let alone a country that had seen the Civil War end just days earlier. No chance for the audience to really grasp his death as anything more than a fact that we already knew about coming in.
“Lincoln” worked as a film because Spielberg knew his material was really damn strong, and he simply told the story. The let the drama play out. Until the last scene. You don’t build such a strong story about such a towering figure, do it better than any biopic should have the right to, and then fail to bid that character a proper farewell. You don’t reveal his death with smoke and mirrors.
Maybe Spielberg didn’t want to linger on Lincoln’s death, which is why he chose that speech as the closing shot. I don’t know. But even that, after glossing over such a monumental event, amounts to a cheap trick of an ending. With “Lincoln”, we two and a half hours getting to know the Lincoln Spielberg wants us to. And it is a wonderful experience. But then Spielberg shoos us out the door before we have a chance to say goodbye, and he hopes a few nice parting memories will suffice.