Brad Lincoln is hunched in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, world-weary and rain-soaked. Outside, rain falls steadily. Lincoln is approached by two children who, to his surprise, know who he is. They begin to recite his high school and college statistics, his multiple awards won at those levels. Lincoln takes it in with an embarrassed smile, signs their baseball cards that bear his likeness, tells them how smart and generous they are.
After the children depart, summoned by their mother, an older gentleman, whom we know (thanks to convenient subtitles) to be Dr. James Andrews, approaches, his shadow in the shape of a crooked elbow preceding him.
“It’s time now, Mr. Lincoln,” Dr. Andrews says. Lincoln rises from his seat follows behind Andrews, putting one foot down fully before picking up the other. The gap between them grows until Dr. Andrews passes through a door and Lincoln is left alone in a hallway, a dim light directly above him. Lincoln hesitates for a moment and looks to his left, almost over his shoulder, at us.
Steven Spielberg’s [Brad] Lincoln is a biopic that foregoes the mythological childhood of its subject figure. Brad Lincoln grew up in the poor, small town of Clute, Texas. Despite modest upbringing, Lincoln went on to succeed at a young age. But the film chooses not to focus on the oft inflated tales of his success in the Cape Cod league (he struck out 25 hitters in one game), at the University of Houston, or in high school. Instead, it begins with a major obstacle to future success: Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2007, shortly after the beginning of his pro career. By focusing on a small chunk of Lincoln’s life (from the surgery to the present), Spielberg allows Luke Wilson (who plays Lincoln) to suggest a man who was succeeded despite economic odds but is now derailed by circumstances outside his control — instead of showing us those “formative years” in plodding, overbearing narrative cinema.
In depicting Lincoln’s recovery from the surgery, Spielberg does embellish quite a bit. For instance, just as Lincoln is about to make a breakthrough in his rehab, his thirteen-year-old golden retriever, Doug, is found dead on his ranch outside of Houston. Lincoln never had golden retriever. To boot, the John Williams score becomes incorrigibly saccharine during the dog’s burial, for which Lincoln digs a grave, re-injuring his right elbow in the process. The fabrication itself might not have been so bad had it not been for the heavy-handed way in which it was rendered.
The third act, however, is surprisingly understated. Lincoln’s first Major League win — in which he pitched seven scoreless against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, striking out six and walking just one — is shown from multiple perspectives: his uncle Cleatus, watches the game on a small TV in his kitchen as he fixes and eats a sandwich; the children from the opening scene watch via MLBTV, spelling out Lincoln in Fruit By The Foot; Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington watches from his office at PNC Park, paying more attention to the one-year anniversary of his trade of Sean Burnett and Nyjer Morgan to the Washington Nationals for Joel Hanrahan and Lastings Milledge. The only depiction of the action on the field is of Lincoln calmly setting himself before delivering a pitch, an image that repeats to increasingly moving effect.
The end of [Brad] Lincoln is subtly done, as well: after securing modest success as a middle-reliever with the Pirates in 2012, Lincoln is traded to the Toronto Blue Jays. As depicted, there is much uncertainty in Lincoln’s future: how will he adapt to a new country, one that seems so different from his native Texas? What will his role be with the Blue Jays? Just what did the Jays see in him that the Pirates missed — or what did the Pirates know that the Jays didn’t? Has he finally left his elbow problems and the ghost of Doug the Retriever behind him? Spielberg provides no clear answers to these questions — much to his credit. The life of a ballplayer is in constant flux. To project success or to wrap things up tidily would be irresponsible.