One of the toughest challenges I run across in this line of work (and by work, I mean sad hobby to which I devote entirely too much time) is the issue of judging a film to be good, even great, before I’ve even taken a seat in the theater. I try to go into each film unbiased, with little more than general excitement to rely on but let’s be honest, some films bring with them a built in feeling of greatness that can’t be ignored; that’s human nature I think. So when we get, say, my favorite director ever, Steven Spielberg, working with perhaps the best actor of his generation, Daniel Day Lewis, on a film concerning the greatest president in the history of America, Abraham Lincoln (duh), you can imagine the internal struggle to remain neutral before heading in. It is only fair, then, to suggest that nothing short of Honest Abe wielding an axe and slaughtering a CGI Bela Lugosi would have led to me disliking Lincoln. So bear that in mind as we delve into a film that is sure to find its way onto the list of Best Picture contenders. Just a few months before his eventual death, Abraham Lincoln (Day Lewis), the 18th president of the United States of America, found himself at a crossroads. The Civil War, which had raged across the country for the better part of four years, was nearing a breaking point at which time the Rebels would have to come to terms with the Union. But the end of the war was not Lincoln’s only endgame. Instead, he wanted to see the 13th Amendment, which would provide for the unconditional emancipation of all slaves, passed through the House of Representatives and into law, a measure that would prove difficult to pass once the war came to a close. With limited time on his hands, Lincoln and his Secretary of State (David Straithairn) began a campaign to fast track the Amendment within the House and secure the necessary votes, including at least 20 from the opposing Democrats, to see its passage before the window of opportunity closed.
Lincoln is less biopic and more historical document, a dynamic that could potentially throw off the unprepared viewer. Spielberg goes to great lengths to display the realities of the situation Lincoln found himself in back in 1865 and illustrate the many difficulties he had to overcome. When considering the climate of hostility Lincoln had to navigate, we, or at least I, tend to focus on the tension and outright hatred the man faced from the South and fail to acknowledge the many pratfalls he had to work around within the Union and even his own party. It’s a portion of history that gets overlooked and therefore, it makes for a fascinating and fresh backdrop to work with. I have found that many biopics struggle to tell an interesting story. That is to say, the films often become all about the lead performance and his/her subject and fail to bring the story up to the level of the performance. Ray is a prime example; Jamie Foxx’s portrayal is fantastic and truly deserving of his Oscar win. But the movie itself does very little, in my mind, to add to Foxx’s acting. Lincoln doesn’t have this problem because the story holds just as much importance as the performance. Spielberg is able to blend a significant narrative in with the more personal aspects of Day Lewis’ portrayal and it all comes together in a tidy, gloriously well-crafted film that works on many levels.
That is not to say that Daniel Day Lewis’ performance isn’t great. Pick a complimentary adjective to describe Day Lewis’ work here and you’ll probably still undersell it. “Exquisite” and “perfect” come to mind. He personifies Lincoln in a way that few, if any, other actors could. His Lincoln exhibits the wisdom, patience, and steadfastness that we all associate with the man but it is his moments of humor, wit, and fire that really brings him to life and makes him seem perhaps more human than he has been before. This goes beyond the sort of powerhouse performance that I anticipated and reaches into the sort of revered territory reserved only for the best the industry has ever given us. It’s a portrayal that sticks with you and I think I’ll feel even stronger about six months from now.
But again, the real brilliance of Lincoln is that it does not hang its hat solely on the lead performance. Spielberg makes a debate in the House of Representatives exciting and appropriately tense, a statement I imagine CSPAN is incredibly jealous of. It really is an incredibly interesting story and Spielberg builds its momentum beautifully throughout. In addition, the ridiculously talented cast of characters provides magnificent support for Day Lewis, though each player receives fairly minimal screen time with which to work. Tommy Lee Jones, Lee Pace, and James Spader are especially impressive but truth be told, I could list off a dozen or more actors and actresses who have at least one strong moment in the spotlight. And as with almost any Spielberg film, the technical aspects of Lincoln are outstanding. This is a beautiful film and Spielberg frames virtually every shot perfectly, never wasting an inch of space. The score, too, is fitting and the set pieces are gorgeous. At times the plot drags just a bit (one or two of the Mary Todd Lincoln scenes could have been left out in my opinion) and I believe it should have ended a few minutes earlier. There is a natural stopping point that includes a beautiful shot that were it up to me, would have been the film’s closing scene but instead we roll on a bit longer. Nevertheless, Lincoln is one of the year’s best and I expect it will be judged thusly. Moreover, it’s a return to form for our greatest director after he endured a one-for-three “slump” over the last few years that included the underwhelming War Horse and a certain archaeology-related sequel that shall remain nameless.
Lincoln Director: Steven Spielberg Cast: Daniel Day Lewis, David Straithairn, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones Rated: PG-13 (A smattering of language including one well-placed bomb, small samples of violence and gore in isolated scenes) Recommended For: Content wise, suitable for 10/11 and up, length wise it’s probably geared more toward teens and up)