Lincoln Review


The way Daniel Day-Lewis towers over Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is almost a shame. His performance is one of such immersion that you’ll occasionally lose sight of what’s going on around him—even the words he’s speaking.

Or maybe that has to do with Tony Kushner’s drier-than-desert-sand screenplay. Abraham Lincoln’s life and presidency are important (and juicy) enough to make a half-dozen brilliant, very different films. Unfortunately, Spielberg’s new take on Honest Abe, which focuses on the final months of his life, misses brilliance by quite a margin. It’s impeccably crafted, and Day-Lewis truly kills it, but the ins and outs of lawmaking circa 1865 just don’t hook you the way you might expect they would.

After being elected to a second term as president, Lincoln (Day-Lewis) decides the time is right to push the House of Representatives to pass a radical piece of legislation—the 13th Amendment to the Constitution—which would abolish slavery in the United States and all of its territories. Lincoln, a Republican, recognizes that many Democrats who have lost their bids for re-election—the “lame ducks”—won’t have anything to lose and, for a price, would cross party lines to support his bill. Of course, promising tax-payer-funded jobs to rival politicians is a sketchy business unbecoming of the President of the United States, so he and his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), enlist the help of three Washington scoundrels (Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, and James Spader) to procure twenty Democrats’ votes.

Meanwhile, the Civil War still rages on, and though the Confederacy looks defeated, scores of men on both sides are dying daily. Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), wants to stand with the Union soldiers, but his father and mother (Sally Field) forbid it. Lincoln, of course, longs for an end to the fighting as much as he longs to pass his anti-slavery legislation. But it seems accomplishing both goals might not be possible. With a Confederate delegation on its way to Washington, any radical policy shift (i.e. the legal end of slavery) could end any chance of a peaceful Southern surrender. On the other hand, Lincoln knows the window of time he has to pass the law closes when the calendar turns to February. He’s forced to make a seemingly impossible choice and friends and enemies on both sides of the aisle have plenty to say about his ultimate decision.

The way Spielberg tackles the stale biopic genre is refreshing. He isn’t interested in telling us about Lincoln’s birthplace or his relationship with his parents. This isn’t the “greatest hits” treatment J. Edgar Hoover and Margaret Thatcher received last year. Its scope is quite narrow, which is, theoretically, an asset. In practice, however, this material is too stately. There’s plenty of friction between the two political parties, and the dichotomy between Lincoln’s goal and the means by which he achieves it is intriguing. Ultimately, however, Lincoln limps along at a snail’s pace without ever nailing its natural dramatic crescendos.

Daniel Day-Lewis, however, gives a performance that’ll rival any since, well, Day-Lewis’ own work in There Will Be Blood. Everything—the voice, the makeup, the lanky mannerisms Day-Lewis adopts—leads to a transformation that’s completely believable and absolutely compelling. His presence in the film is very stoic. He excels in quiet moments—like when he lies in the floor holding his son, or when he silently waits while the House votes on his bill. His Oscar nomination is a certainty. His third career win is quite likely.

Tommy Lee Jones seems poised for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Lincoln‘s ensemble is deeper than any film in recent memory, but Jones is the one supporting actor who you’ll remember long after the details of the film have faded from yoru memory. He steals every scene he’s in, spewing bile at every pro-slavery democrat who dares challenge him. Meanwhile, Sally Field imbues Mary Todd Lincoln with the emotional stability of your average Justin Bieber fangirl, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is seriously underused as Lincoln’s son.

The film’s production design is unparalleled, while Spielberg’s use of light will floor you. The entire film—its interiors, props, costumes, etc.—looks straight out of the 1860s, and there isn’t a director out there with an eye for detail like Steven Spielberg. John Williams very subdued work also deserves credit for bucking expectations; His work here is the best “non-score” in some time.

Lincoln‘s whole, however, doesn’t equal the sum of its parts—in fact, it isn’t even close. Its performances are sensational, and it hits all the right notes technically. But Spielberg and Kushner’s quiet-as-a-mouse approach to Lincoln‘s dramatic peaks and valleys ultimately knocks it down a few pegs from the unequivocal triumph it should have been to the minor success it actually is.

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