Lincoln could have been a terrible film. Steven Spielberg has little left to prove at this point, having directed some of the very best genre films ever made. As if to confirm my fears about the film, the first trailer for Lincoln sported cheesy melodramatic dialogue hammed up by a boring stock orchestral track. Sitting down at the theater, I was sure I was in for a preachy tale about the Civil War and the fight to end slavery. But while some of those conceits do rear their ugly head, I can assure you that Lincoln is at its heart a stunning ode to one of the most important and turbulent times in United States history.
The care and effort poured into Lincoln is immediately apparent in Spielberg’s choice of aesthetic. From the intricate outfits to the period mannerisms and colloquialisms, the film reeks of historical accuracy. This attention to detail, paired with a grainy blue-gray color palette, gives the characters the appearance of portraits come to life. And yet, it never feels academic – this is a drama through and through. There is something to be said for a film that makes you feel like you’re watching footage from over a century ago, but also keeps your attention the entire time.
Central to the success of Lincoln is its lead, Daniel Day-Lewis. Although I am usually nonplussed with his intense method acting style, Day-Lewis shows an incredible sense of restraint and subtlety as Abraham Lincoln. His reserved, quirky take on the former president gives this legendary figure a distinctly human quality, making someone so often portrayed as an infallible symbol into a kind, sympathetic, and generally relatable man.
Nearly stealing the show from Day-Lewis is another famous three-named actor. Taking on the role of the “radical” Republican representative Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones is the only representative who openly expresses a desire for black equality beyond the end of slavery. Dancing perfectly between wit and raw emotion, every moment on-screen with Jones is a joy to watch. The only caveat I should mention about his character development is his final scene, in which an ulterior motive to his fight for equality is revealed to the audience. While this revelation is probably historically accurate, it ultimately hurts Stevens’ arc as it diminishes his seemingly selfless crusade.
Levity is a big part of what makes Lincoln so endearing. I was surprised to find myself laughing at this film much more than I did at lighter epics like this year’s Skyfall. The rapid-fire banter between Jones’s character Thaddeus Stevens and other state representatives in particular always left a big grin on my face. Underlying this humor is Tony Kushner’s tight script, although it is unclear whether the more clever pieces of dialogue were of his design, or if they were lifted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and other historical documents.
Accompanying Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones on-screen is what feels like the rest of Hollywood. With Sally Field (The Amazing Spider-Man) as a distraught, politically minded Mary Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn (The Bourne Ultimatum) as the shrewd Secretary of State William Seward, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises) as Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert, the film has no shortage of talent.
Unfortunately, as often happens in such large ensemble casts, many of these big names get sidelined. The aforementioned Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln is a prime example of this, as his character says and does nothing that moves the plot forward. Aside from exposing some of the more gruesome aspects of the war itself, Gordon-Levitt’s scenes are generally irrelevant to any of the other characters or story lines. This is a disappointing fate for such a prolific actor, and in the greater context of the narrative, this and other side stories distract more than they help.
The largest problem in Lincoln, though, is its third act pacing. Starting just after the beginning of Abraham Lincoln’s second term, Spielberg and Kushner bring us up to speed with some brief exposition before weaving a snappy, compelling political story about the fight to end slavery. This conflict culminates in a simultaneously humorous, emotional, and very satisfying vote in the House of Representatives on whether to ratify the 13th Amendment. However, remembering that the film is called Lincoln and not Abolition, both the director and screenwriter scramble to capture the last few days of Lincoln’s life after what feels like the end of the film. Unfortunately, by then it is too late; as they rush conclude their story, having expended most of their energy on the battle of state representatives, the film loses nearly all of its steam and the result feels like tacked-on addendum.
My nitpicks won’t hold back my score very much, though, because Lincoln is by most accounts a triumph. While it is possible that someone, some day, will make a better biopic about the 16th president of the United States of America, it will be difficult to top Spielberg’s effortless direction, Kushner’s smart writing, and Day-Lewis’s deftly nuanced portrayal of Lincoln himself. After many attempts at bringing him to the big screen dating all the way back to 1930, The Great Emancipator has finally received his due.
Verdict: Movie Win
A Note on Ensemble Casts – There are so many actors who play bit parts in Lincoln that I thought it would do them a disservice not to mention them here. John Hawkes (Deadwood), James Spader (Boston Legal), and Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) make for a wonderfully charming band of misfits under the command of Seward. Playing General Ulysses S. Grant is Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows). I enjoyed seeing so many familiar faces in Lincoln, but I have to wonder if it was really necessary, or indeed fiscally responsible, to cast them over lesser-known actors.
A Note on Assassination – I guess this can be considered a spoiler if you don’t know the story of Abraham Lincoln, but the film does go right up to the end of the former president’s life. Spielberg elected to deal with the infamous shooting at Ford’s Theatre by showing us his son attending an entirely different performance at the moment of his father’s death. While I understand that Spielberg is trying to avoid his tendency toward syrupy over-sentimentality, the scene was almost too antiseptic; while I cared about Lincoln as a character, to not shoot the scene differently or at least Ford’s theatre itself undermined the any emotional pull the tragedy might have had.