Published on April 3rd, 2013 | by Clint Davis
Summary: Spielberg's intimate look at the final month's of Abraham Lincoln's life is his best work in a decade. Day-Lewis leads a stacked cast with his humanizing portrayal of the President.
PG-13 | 150 min.
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Tony Kushner (based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis (*Oscar winner: Best actor in a leading role), Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones
Distribution: Touchstone Pictures
Around 2006, I remember reading about a project being developed by Steven Spielberg that would follow the life of Abraham Lincoln as its plot. As years went by, I figured the idea had been lost in the ether of pre-production, but eventually it was announced that Daniel Day-Lewis had signed on to portray the former president (a part originally rumored to be played by Liam Neeson).
Even then, this was a project that many people were hyping. So, the question was begged, how does one make a film that could live up to the near-mythical legend of Lincoln?
Six years later, as I was sitting in a small movie theater in Delaware, Ohio watching this film, I couldn’t help but marvel at what had come together. The fact that Spielberg and company were able to rise up to the mounds of hype that had been built up around this film is something to applaud them for. But the fact that they made a movie that will outlive everyone involved and likely serve as the Hollywood film about Lincoln’s legacy is even more impressive.
At its heart, Lincoln is a very safe, award-baiting type of film. Like much of Spielberg’s work since the turn of the millennium, it doesn’t take many chances. However, its straightforward style is offset by the complexity of its subject.
Don’t go into Lincoln expecting a biopic that follows Abe in the cabin in Kentucky where he taught himself to read, to his years as a lawyer in Illinois, and finishing up at the Ford Theater with John Wilkes-Booth screaming “Sic semper tyrannis!” This movie keeps its scope fairly small by focusing solely on President Lincoln’s attempts to pass the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery and ending the Civil War.
Screenwriter Tony Kushner made a good call by centering the script on the final months of its subject’s life, despite the title making it sound like a biography piece. It’s often tempting for writers to cram too much into a biopic, but this film avoided that from the start. Ultimately, the end of both slavery and the war are the greatest moments of Lincoln’s years as president, thus being a fitting timeframe for this film.
Daniel Day-Lewis won his third Oscar for his portrayal of Honest Abe, putting him within arm’s length of hallowed Katherine Hepburn territory. It’s interesting to note that his wins have come when playing solely American or Irish-born characters; as Day-Lewis is English himself, it shows an old-school knack for putting on accents and transforming himself. The testament to Day-Lewis’s performance in Lincoln though, is how easily he brings a deeply-ingrained icon to life. Sure, his legendary character Daniel Plainview of There Will Be Blood was the definition of larger-than-life, but audiences didn’t sit down anticipating a lifelong image of him before the film started. There was much more pressure on the actor going into this performance.
In this role, Day-Lewis successfully humanizes a figure of American history who today stands almost more as a metaphor for doing what’s right than a real man. Day-Lewis is often soft-spoken and even quiet in many scenes, his character is also humanized by the way we see Lincoln relate to his children and wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field).
My criticisms of Lincoln mostly relate to its length. You typically expect a historical drama to be over 2 hours long, but some trimming could have likely been done to this one. As the movie’s action plays out over mere months, its pace seems to drag toward the last act. Also let’s not kid ourselves, the assassination is a scene many audience members will be waiting for, but I was disappointed in how Spielberg downplays it. This could have been a pivotal dramatic moment, but instead they go for a softer approach to the president’s untimely death. I was left asking, “That was it?!”
If you’re a history buff, you’ll enjoy seeing many legendary American figures come to life, including Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, and even Robert E. Lee. If you’re a film buff, you’ll be thrilled seeing great actors interact in every scene of the movie’s runtime. In one scene, you’ll see Day-Lewis laying out terms of surrender to Jackie Earle-Haley, in the next, it’s Tommy Lee Jones getting berated by Sally Field, followed by a chat between James Spader, John Hawkes, and David Strathairn! Lincoln boasts a dream cast of both character actors and leading players.
The cast is incredible from its top billing to its minor supporting roles. Lincoln may not be the most edgy or exciting film of 2012, but it’s nice to see one that relies more on beautiful acting than CGI or shocking subject matter. This is Spielberg’s best work since 2005’s Munich, and his most intimate since 1993’s Schindler’s List.