Directed by D.W. Griffith
Starring Walter Huston, Una Merkel and William L. Thorne
Produced by D.W. Griffith Productions
In a small, nondescript log cabin in Kentucky, a small child is born. We see him grow up and fall in love only to lose her to disease in her 20s. He courts an ambitious woman and runs unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate.
But with the country teetering on the brink of a civil war, his party turns to him to be its Presidential candidate. Can he win the White House? Will he lead his country through its most difficult hours? Does he fight vampires? And should he give up going to the theater?
Abraham Lincoln follows the life of one of our most famous Presidents from his log cabin birth to his assassination. It's well-acted and well-directed. So what's it missing?Every major detail of his life.
We see nothing of his Presidential election. No Gettysburg address. The Emancipation Proclamation, the Lincoln Douglas debates... all given only the most cursory of treatments.
There are plenty of good biopics out there that play as a highlight reel of a person's life. Others focus on a less consequential event as a way of humanizing and illuminating a public persona. Griffith tries to do both here. He chooses to move throughout Lincoln's entire life over the course of 90 minutes, but focuses on the smaller moments in between the larger actions. It just never quite works.
We meet an early love of young Abe's, but the next scene is at her deathbed. We don't spend enough time with her to care or even to feel the impact of her death on the rest of Abe's life. Similarly, Lincoln declares throughout that the Union must be preserved. Yet none of the smaller moments give the viewer any better understanding of why the future President believes this.
Where the film actually takes off is in its second half when Lincoln has become President (in an election that happens entirely off-screen). We see his Cabinet, certain they will be able to steamroll an inexperienced politician, surprised by his resolve. There's the wonderful image of a vast bank of telegraph operators providing the President with his only sense of how the war proceeds through accounts shaded by the overconfidence of his commanders in the field. There's genuine tension in these scenes despite the fact that we know how it all turns out.
The film's denouement is Lincoln's assassination at Ford's theater and Griffith cannot pull off the same feat. The action proceeds slowly, clearly with the intention of building up suspense, but it doesn't work. We know the assassin is successful. Making it worse, Griffith actually already showed us this very moment in history in The Birth of a Nation and did so far more effectively.
To the extent anything in the film's first half works, it's due in large part to Walter Huston. As Lincoln, he's believable as brawler, as a young man in love, as a patriot, as a President. He has a carefree personality that turns grave and somber when faced with matters of state. He handles the frenetic movement of the script perfectly.
The only other issue worth mentioning is the obviousness of some of the script. It's filled with a lot of winking "you'll never amount to anything" dialogue which of course is meant to give the audience (which has the benefit of 20/20 historical hindsight) a brief chuckle. However, after the fifth time you use that device, it starts to lose its charm.
Ultimately, Abraham Lincoln is hampered by its approach. The film flits from inconsequential moment to inconsequential moment, providing just enough information to intrigue without providing any illumination on the man behind the myth. The result is a solid lead performance, a lot of wasted narrative energy and ultimately more questions than answers for the audience.
**1/2 out of *****