I saw Lincoln today and made a few revelations.
(1) Putting too many famous people in a single film creates a vortex of laziness.
I imagine that the thought process of these Hollywood bigwigs is something like, "Wow, this film is so elite that it can't possibly fail," so they don't try very hard. The end result in Lincoln is woefully uninspired performances almost entirely across the board. Its as if they weren't even trying!
For example, Daniel Day Lewis has undergone an interesting physical transformation but emotes only a bland pensiveness. Its feels like he never fully embraces the character and makes it his own. While Lewis remains adequate in the role, there is no spark. He is absolutely capable of more -- he was captivating in There Will Be Blood -- so it is possible that Spielburg has homogenized and tainted him. George Lucas has a similar effect on people, i.e., Natalie Portman. She is a highly capable actress but George Lucas managed to suck every ounce of her vitality and expression, thereby creating her utterly soulless, dead-eyed Amidala.
As an aside, examples of other performances that are captivating to me are Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (perhaps the most egregious loss in Academy Award history), Noomy Rapace in Prometheus, Kevin Spacey in The Usual Suspects, Russell Crowe in Gladiator, Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, Ivana Banquero in Pan's Labyrinth, etc.
Back to Lincoln! It is not just Daniel Day Lewis who fails to shine. Sally Field, Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Tommy Lee Jones are tediously one note. The most interesting performances are for three members of the House of Representatives. Michael Stuhlbarg's George Yeaman was by far and away the most captivating performance, followed by Lee Pace's Fernando Wood and David Costabile's James Ashley. James Spader's Bilbo is wildly entertaining, but Spader is unfortunately playing the same off kilter character he has been playing for the last decade in The Office, Boston Legal, The Practice, etc.
(2) You can't call an apple an orange because you want to avoid scurvy.
Sally Field presents us with a bitchy, half-crazed Mary Todd, and her character then complains during a carriage ride at the end of the film that no one will remember her as anything but a bitchy, half-crazed Mary Todd. During the same carriage ride, Mary Todd and/or Lincoln make sure to say that totally isn't true and she had a highly diversified personality and was an integral part of Lincoln's success.
Well, gosh, if you wanted the viewer to think that Mary Todd was more than just a bitchy, half-crazed woman, the way to go about it is to portray her as otherwise using lines (!) and acting (!) instead of just making her bitchy, half-crazed, and useless, and then trying to command the viewer to draw a different conclusion at the end. This draws me to...
(3) Steven Spielberg is an emotional dominatrix.
Steven Spielberg just can't stop himself from trying to control the viewer. He loves emotional manipulation and continually underestimates his audience's ability to understand the plot and to experience emotion based on subtlety and suggestion.
Spielberg has a long history of doing this. For example, in A.I., William Hurt's character is given exceptional lengthy, monotonous speeches in a demeaning attempt to "explain" to the audience what is happening. In Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg felt the need to slap me over the head with modern-day cemetery scene at the end of the movie because, you know, I just didn't get it when Miller's last words were to tell Ryan to "earn this." I am soooo stupid that I needed Spielberg to clarify what "this" meant, by having Ryan explicitly ask his wife whether he was worthy of Miller's sacrifice.
Spielberg's directing is the equivalent of taking everything that is implied, read between the lines, or cumulatively understood and shouting it in all caps. For example, if Spielberg had written Ahab's lines in Moby Dick, his famous speech would have read, "... to the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee; BECAUSE I PLAN ON FIGHTING YOU TO THE DEATH, YOU STUPID WHALE, AND I REALLY FRIGGIN' HATE YOU FOR EATING MY LEG!!"