Film Review: Lincoln (2012)
After years and years of teasing with the possibility of giving audiences a definitive biopic on the 16th American President Abraham Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg has done just that, as the wait is certainly worth it for Lincoln (2012). The film, though, does not cover all of his life; it just deals with the final year of the Civil War and his attempt to pass the 13th Amendment to free slaves for good. Even with such a small window into the legendary man’s life, no other movie has captured the essence of Lincoln as adeptly and beautifully as this one, despite its humble scale and deliberate pacing. Lincoln is a pretty accurate and poetically intimate portrayal of the 16th president filled with soaring performances, especially from the always-incredible Daniel Day-Lewis in the titular role.
The film begins toward the end of the Civil War as Lincoln looks to bring peace to the war-torn country. However, he first must pass the slave-freeing 13th Amendment in Congress, specifically in the House of Representatives, before the Confederate States return to the Union, which would certainly block its passage. Even amongst the states remaining in the Union during the Civil War, Lincoln still needed a little over 20 votes from Democrats and for none in the Republican Party to defect in order to pass the amendment. Even several within Lincoln’s cabinet questioned the plan with the Civil War still taking many husbands, brothers, etc., but he pursued it knowing before he makes peace with the South he must complete this task to save the lives of “millions in bondage and unborn millions to come.” Consequently, Lincoln utilizes all means necessary, including bribery and the patronage system (promising/giving of jobs), to win the votes while keeping a Confederate delegation for peace at bay, not to mention maintain his family that included a depressed wife grieving over a dead son, another son looking to enlist as well, and a young boy to look after.
Even without an epic, decade-spanning scale and script, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Munich) give audiences great insight into the legendary man Abraham Lincoln, and portray him as such: a human. It is an intimate and concentrated portrayal without becoming too mawkish or patriotic; rather, he is depicted as a down-to-earth inspirational leader, father, and husband (one that loved to tell folksy tales at any chance, which of course enthralled his listeners). The film itself manages to balance the biographical details of his personal life and characteristics with the intrigue of the period piece political thriller, the latter of which offers great insight as well into the political process (for both then and now). Some of the writing and directorial choices may surprise, such as the dialogue-heavy and focused script as well as the decision not to portray the assassination directly. In addition, the film has a nice touch of comedy thrown in to further engage
the audience into the situation, as humor is a great technique to bring the audience deeper into a story and relate to its characters.
Of course, without Daniel Day-Lewis’ phenomenal performance, Lincoln would not be half as enchanting. He truly becomes the man, both superficially and characteristically. The makeup work on him is outstanding as is his tender vocal work, which surprised many but appears to have been accurate unlike the many depictions of a booming voice. He is all but certain to win his third Best Actor Oscar for the role (the first two being for My Left Foot and There Will Be Blood, and possibly a few more is not out of the question by any means). For an actor that has a storied career, albeit relatively small one (in terms of number of roles, as he carefully picks and chooses them over several years), this could be considered one of his best if not the best one yet, as he completely inhabits the character.
Day-Lewis is not the only one in the massive cast to excel and raise the film up. Tommy Lee Jones gives arguably the greatest performance of his long career as the witty and commanding yet surprisingly compassionate Abolitionist Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens. He virtually steals the show from a never-better Day-Lewis, since the latter gives such an understated and fully inhabiting performance that Jones can shine. David Strathairn is dependably solid in an modest performance as Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward. James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes have small but effective and sometimes humorous parts as W.N. Bilbo, Richard Schell, and Robert Latham who lobby for votes on behalf of Lincoln. The authoritative Hal Holbrook has a small role as Preston Blair, who beseeches Lincoln to speak with the Confederate peace delegation. Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie form the main adversaries in the House as Representatives Fernando Wood and George Pendleton, both of whom turn in very good, if at times over-the-top performances. Michael Stuhlbarg and Walton Goggins play two Democrat holdouts George Yeaman and Clay Hutchins; they are quite funny at times in small but significant roles. Of all people to play the General Ulysses S. Grant, Brit Jared Harris would have been the last I’d imagine, but he somehow pulls off the gruff American accent and gives a solid turn as the iconic general and future president. Sally Field has her best role in years as Mary Todd Lincoln, one that she succeeds in for the most part (and may even garner awards nominations in the supporting category). Superstar Joseph Gordon-Levitt acts as Lincoln’s eldest surviving son Robert, who drops out of
college to enlist in the war, much to Mary Todd’s dismay. Other notable faces appear throughout the movie, including Bruce McGill, David Oyelowo, Dane DeHaan, Lukas Haas, Joseph Cross, and others, all of whom, like the rest of the cast, make for an amazing ensemble cast that truly makes Lincoln what it is.
As always, Spielberg brings with him a number of his long-time collaborators to bring Lincoln to life, and they certainly succeed. Composer extraordinaire John Williams has crafted yet another amazing original musical score to fit the story, though it is not as iconic as some of his other works – it is more understated and intimate than sweeping/epic and exhilarating. Janusz Kaminski, who has been director of photography for many of Spielberg’s films and on all of his war-centered films (most notably last year’s War Horse, Saving Private Ryan, and Schindler's List), paints a dramatic but softly lit picture for the film that probably won’t win many best cinematography awards but is beautiful nonetheless. The art-direction, production design, wardrobe, and other technical departments excel like any other Spielberg film with maximum production value. Also, Spielberg’s long-time editor Michael Kahn smoothly cuts the picture together for maximum engagement and emotional attachment, despite a glaringly talky-screenplay.
Indeed, Lincoln is not a film one simply watches and most definitely not watches when tired – it is not the most entertaining (in a blockbuster/epic sense) film Spielberg has made. In other words, it is at times bordering on boring, largely because it is so dialogue-driven; it is a film comprised of verbal joust after verbal joust, which can become tiring. Nonetheless, Lincoln somehow remains fascinating despite its “talky” nature; the technical aspects and performances certainly help out. Also, the history facts and details are interesting and simple enough to understand even for non-history buffs. Besides, many of the verbal battles that take place are quite amusing, but still this is a fairly low-key film that requires the viewer’s full attention.
Overall, Lincoln is not top-shelf Spielberg, but it is a solid B-effort, which makes it still very good and even great at times. It nowhere near matches the level of icon and landmark status that Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List did, but it is an absorbing film nevertheless. Parts of it, however, are reminiscent of those classics. For example, the poignant scene in which Gordon-Levitt’s Robert Lincoln follows a hospital orderly to discover a pit of amputated limbs, which feels similar to the train station scene in Schindler’s List where the audience sees where all of the Jewish people’s prized possessions are not put on their train but rather into a backroom where Nazis sort out the valuable items. Spielberg once again shows us he has a passion and voice to make films, as Lincoln will certainly garner him at least another directing nomination if not bring him home the Oscar. It is an entertaining (to a degree), informative and outstandingly acted film that paints a touching and definitive portrait of the legendary 16th president – it may even take home Best Picture, given the Academy’s love for such films.
Lincoln – 8.5/10