Synopsis: As the Civil War continues to rage, America’s president struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield and as he fights with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves.
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, Lee Pace, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, Michael Stuhlbarg,
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running Length: 150 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Steven Spielberg has long been attached to a film regarding the life of the 16th President of the United States. Abraham Lincoln’s tenure as President coincided with several key moments in our history – but what would be the best way to tell his tale? The answer? Make the focus of the film on the road leading up to the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, outlawing slavery and involuntarily servitude. In doing so, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angles in America) have made the film less biopic and more legal drama…and the resulting work is all the better for it.
Any director worth their salt would be able to tell the story of how the young Abe rose from his very humble log cabin beginnings to become one of the most respected men in US history. Spielberg is no ordinary director and his commitment to telling human interest stories about the oppressed has been a staple of his movie canon dating back to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Lincoln actually feels like a companion film to Spielberg’s 1997 Amistad in that both are stories about discrimination, fear, and salvation.
Long rumored to star Liam Neeson, the role of Lincoln was eventually handed to Day-Lewis. Known for his utter immersion in any role that he takes on, Day-Lewis is a man of many faces and facets but he plumbs new depths of his talents here. His Lincoln is a soft-spoken, gentle man that favors quiet direction to loud bombast. Without ever raising his voice he commands a room easily, listening with sincerity while others make their point or dispute his position. Without much to go from instead of first-hand accounts and photographs, Day-Lewis brings the aged Mr. Lincoln to life with a dexterity that’s pretty inspiring. Even his gait seems oddly perfect to how a man of his stature and slight awkwardness would have carried himself.
Kushner has used parts of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s doorstop of a historical biography “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” as inspiration for his wordy screenplay that at times seems like a series of monologues rather than a straight-forward script. That’s not saying that Kushner’s words lack for any power but on the other hand must every scene have a four page speech included in it? Lincoln was a natural storyteller, relaying his message via story or parable and Kushner hits the right notes in that regard. Still, in a movie that pushes the limits of 150 minutes it feels like two stories too many.
What Kushner’s script does brilliantly is provide some exceptional moments for exceptional actors. Aside from Day-Lewis (who probably could have made a Lincoln book report from a third grader sound like poetry), there is Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Jones as Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens, known as the Dictator of Congress.
Field has been attached to the film from day one and at times I wondered if she were perhaps a titch too mature for the role. Going back and reading about Mrs. Lincoln I see that I was wrong…Field is more right than ever for the role. Often derided for her overly emotive style, Field works wonders with her screen time to give Mary (or Molly, as Lincoln affectionately called her) a backbone and frailty that surely made up the woman herself. Watch Field’s hands in her first scene and how they quake…an outward display of inner turmoil. Field also takes great delight in delivering one of the more enjoyable throw downs of the year to Jones’s Stevens while in a receiving line. It’s great fun that doesn’t feel out of place.
Jones knocked it out of the park earlier this summer with Hope Springs and he brings that hound dog face and scrappy nature to the field here too. Stealing every scene he’s a part of, Jones reminds us why he’s one of the better actors working today and more than just the grumpy Gus he comes off as. Bewigged in what looks to be a Joan Crawford hand-me-down, Jones nonetheless doesn’t let that stop him as he holds his own defense of the Amendment in Congress while working with Lincoln to secure the votes necessary for it to pass. Like Field, Kushner has written Jones several wonderful speeches that he spits out with verve. Expect Jones to be nominated for (and possibly receive) another Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
I’ve always been fascinated with Spielberg’s knack for casting. There are some films that he casts with almost total unknowns (like War Horse) and then films like Lincoln where he fills the screen with familiar faces. Spader, Nelson, and Hawkes are quite a treat as hired not quite semi-muscle tasked on the sly by Lincoln with scrounging up votes from members of Congress. Pace, Stuhlbarg, Holbrook, Jared Harris, and Jackie Earle Haley also turn in solid supporting roles as players in the game of politics. Gloria Reuben impresses in a small but heartbreaking role as an attendant to Mary Todd Lincoln. And the always dependable Strathairn is perfect as Secretary of State William Seward. These actors are only the tip of the iceberg in a cast that is uniformly in it to win it.
The only actor that I was surprised that I wasn’t as impressed with was Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s son, Robert. Robert wants to join the war but is discouraged by his father and forbidden by his mother. As written, the character seems more of an angst-y John Hughes-esque character than any of the other characters Kushner has created. With his excellent contributions to The Dark Knight Rises, Looper, and Premium Rush, it’s not all his fault…he just feels out of place. I think the major problem lies with the feeling that this particular storyline feels a bit shoehorned into the proceedings to raise the stakes for Lincoln’s part in ending the war.
Speaking of stakes, they are never higher than they are as the film continues to ramp up toward the vote. Anyone that has taken a History class should know how this turns out but that doesn’t stop Spielberg from keeping you at the edge of your seat during this extended history lesson. Some knowledge of the Civil War and its complexities would help, I think, add to the enjoyment of the film…especially in its fairly dense first half.
Working again with longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg makes sure that each frame has exactly what he wants in it. That’s what I love so much about his work, he’s a smart enough filmmaker to deliver his movies precisely in the way he has envisioned them. When I see a Spielberg film I know that what I’m seeing on the screen is what Spielberg wants us to take in so I make a point to keep my eyes locked in at all times. Aided by another diverse score by John Williams that employs his usual sweeping fanfares and more music of the period, this really is a film that fires on all cylinders and impresses on many occasions.
With Lincoln, Spielberg has presented to audiences another piece of US history that we may think we know the whole story on but wind up benefitting from more information. It says something about his prowess as a director that he can steer us into stirring emotions regarding pieces of history we learned about in our youth. Earlier this year I lamented in my review of the decidedly glum Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that that film actually had Mary utter the ominous line “C’mon Abraham, we’ll be late for the theater!” While the eventual assassination of the president is dealt with in Spielberg’s Lincoln too, it’s handled in a respectful way as only this caring director knows how to do. By that point the film had me swept away with its power and I admit to fighting back a swell of tears for our fallen president…and I didn’t feel manipulated into doing so either.
An epic that all involved should be proud of, Lincoln took the long road to get to the screen and the final product is a film worthy to be called one of the best of the year. Though it is occasionally dry and a bit speech heavy, the performance of Day-Lewis is one for the record books. An Oscar nominee without question, I wouldn’t be upset if Day-Lewis picked up his third Oscar for playing Abe…honestly.