‘Lincoln’ – and Norman Mailer’s Aversion to Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg's new biopic is a carefully studied, moving view of history — and laborious … but at least E.T. isn't in it


Norman Mailer disliked most of Steven Spielberg’s movies. He felt they were sentimental, and he had a particular aversion to “E.T.” Nevertheless, in 1986 the year he was president of PEN, Norman wanted Spielberg to help raise funds for the writers’ group’s 64th Annual Congress in Manhattan — but Norman didn't know Spielberg.

At this time, I was living in Hollywood and under Norman’s spell. Norman was aware that I had double-dated with Spielberg in the mid-‘70s, when I was dating Michael Phillips, a producer of “The Sting.” So he asked me to write Spielberg for a contribution to the gala, at which writers would read from their work.

Spielberg declined via his secretary. 

When I saw his “Lincoln” this weekend, I recalled Norman’s comments about Spielberg’s work.

In the film, the Civil War is raging, but Lincoln has his own war within his cabinet to pass the 13th Amendment. Freeing the slaves was more important to him than ending the war. It’s a carefully studied and moving view of history. And laborious.

Still, Daniel Day-Lewis makes his portrayal of the president come alive. Memorable. He doesn’t have the pompous and pretentious accent or presence that the early trailer implied he might have. He wears Abe well. And chomping at the bit is that ol’ scene stealer Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, senator from Pennsylvania.

The cast is almost endless in wonderful supporting roles: Hal Holbrook , David Strathairn, James Spader, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Michael Stuhlbarg and not to be forgotten. Sally Field takes her moments and almost writes novels with her expressions — though there were times I felt she was overacting and milking these moments.

No, the actors are not the problem. The problem is watching what is basically a history book when we know the ending. If there’s any surprise, it’s in the portraits and characters drawn by the talented actors, not the plot or story based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, “Team of Rivals.”

Some moments are crisp — when the dialogue allows Abe to be witty and the garrulous storyteller he was. While Spielberg's direction of the actors is wow time, the story and darkness of the film cloud his efforts. After one rousing scene ends, there is too long a lull before the next rousing one takes up the slack. He is asleep at the wheel of the story.

Similarly Tony Kushner’s screenplay soars when the writer shows Lincoln as his cantankerous self. But much of the movie is viewed the way one would view a history book.

Little hardship is shown by the slaves. Perhaps more interaction of the slaves with Lincoln's folk would have tugged a few more limp heart strings. Aside from seeing Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens in bed with his housekeeper slave and giving her a pleasant peck on the cheek (I was waiting for E.T. to join them in an orgy), little awareness of the Negroes’ plight is shown on the screen.

If you catch yourself yawning while looking at “Lincoln” — or for the exit — you will not be alone.