‘Lincoln’ Finds Courage In Its Craft And Focus
Lincoln: 4 out of 5
Abraham Lincoln: Do we choose to be born? Or do we fit into the times where born into?
Lincoln is a film that has been a long time coming. I remember hearing about early stories of director Steven Spielberg working on getting a movie made about Abraham Lincoln, with Tom Hanks being rumored for the role. Then things became more official, as Liam Neeson was said to be attached. The time passed, Neeson bowed out, only to have Daniel Day-Lewis jump in, bringing his intense, method actor ways to Spielberg’s period drama. This worked out for the better, I suppose, as Day-Lewis appears to be embodying the Great Emancipator, but in less an overpowering way, as past portrayals have implied, but in an authoritative, yet kind manner. Similarly, Lincoln, as a whole, is not an overpowering biopic, but a drama focused on a very specific period in the 16th President’s life. The results are quite good, as everyone involved has worked to achieve an incredibly cinematic, well-acted, drama that respects the material, if just a bit too much.
The film takes place in January, 1865, and focuses on the final four months of President Abraham Lincoln’s life. The Civil War is nearing its end and Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has just entered into his second term in office. In order to both assure a victory for the Union and do what he believes is right, Lincoln is now focused on getting all the votes he needs in the House of Representatives to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in the Constitution, which would abolish slavery for good. That’s really all the story there is to tell, but if features a large number of characters played by an assortment of different recognizable actors.
Sally Field is First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, who is in support of her husband on a political and personal level, but finds issue elsewhere regarding the decision made by her son, Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is eager to join in the war effort, having completed his work in college. Tommy Lee Jones is Thaddeus Stevens, a radical abolitionist, who is incredibly proud of his attitude for equal rights. David Strathairn is Secretary of State William Seward, a man Lincoln can confide in, during this controversial time. Jared Harris is Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, who continues to command the Union Army. And there are a ton more roles filled by actors such as James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson, David Oyelowo, Bruce McGill, Lee Pace, and Jackie Earle Haley. A month back, I joked that any character actor who was not in Argo is in Lincoln, but that seems to basically be true, as these two period dramas are the ones that everyone apparently fought to be in.
Fortunately, by having all of these actors, there is a nice sense of gravitas that accompanies this film. It is not that Lincoln, a film from director Steven Spielberg, about one of the most well-known figures in history, necessarily needs additional gravitas, but it seems like there is just a level of comfort in having some many recognizable faces in a film that is all about the behind-the-scenes struggles politicians faced during a very volatile time. That said, it does not get much more comfortable than seeing Daniel Day-Lewis acting out “Story Time with Lincoln”, as the film mixes its West Wing-like dialogue battles with long monologues from the Commander-In-Chief.
The script by Tony Kushner, which is based in part on the novel “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, manages to be really engaging, when it is at its best. Watching sequences of respectable men (as well as some unrespectable persons and some women) argue and overlap with their dialogue makes for a film that feels less stuffy than the assumed nature of a film of this caliber would imply. When dealing with Lincoln, if the film is not having him get into spirited battles against others, it takes its time to pause and let Lincoln recount some old story that he remembers and somehow connects to the situation. It is due to what Day-Lewis and Spielberg bring to these scenes that the film does not fare worse because of these monologues, as it does get repetitive, even after a character literally points this very subject out loud in the film. Fortunately, along with these scenes and the already mentioned scenes of banter, the film has a humorous touch (true to Spielberg form), which keeps things lively as well.
Performance-wise, stepping back from addressing every person in the movie, a few key characters come to mind as the most significant. Day-Lewis is unsurprisingly great in the film, going for a more historically correct version of Lincoln (more introverted and with a higher-pitch voice than people assume is the case), which allows him to distance himself from his more broad (and incredibly entertaining) performance as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Lincoln has this great level of charisma, which Day-Lewis is able to pull off quite well, without going too far and coming off as a caricature. In an equally entertaining performance, Tommy Lee Jones is pretty fantastic in this film. He has one scene, which basically requires him to swallow his pride and tell his opposition to go hell, which is just one of the best parts of the film. His wig may look silly (it’s true to life), but Jones is great here. I was also a big fan of what David Strathairn brought to the film, as he basically kept the film anchored in a level of reality, preventing it from taking off into overly-sentimental territory, not to mention how he was a through line in a number of significant and effective conversations.
If the film suffers anywhere in particular, it is due to its desire to stuff in more conflict that did not necessarily need to be included and could have made for a tighter picture overall. As much as I enjoy Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is already having an amazing year), less involvement with his character could have lent itself to a more focused feature overall. This is just one aspect, but the film is, of course, long, which is not surprising, but seems unsure of why it needs to be. There is a solid framework for a movie here, with a very specific plot thread to work with, but it feels more like Spielberg needed to add some additional aspects simply to have his ground covered on the one Lincoln film that he gets to make. It comes as no surprise that the ending of the film is where one would assume it would be in a biopic, as opposed to logical spots in the film, which could have been just as good, as Spielberg continues to have issues with what is best as a finale in this era of his career.
Back on the positive side though, it certainly comes as no surprise that the technical aspects of this film are fantastic. The period detail seen throughout is gorgeous, with great production and costume design, shown off wonderfully by Spielberg’s longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. There is even a portion of the film that shows off some of battle going on during the Civil War and other moments of the brutality that it caused, which does not necessarily make me want to see a full blown Civil War movie, but makes me satisfied with the film giving us one reason for wanting to see Lincoln inevitably succeed in his cause. As an additional note, Lincoln has now also usurped the throne from True Grit as the best beard movie in years.
I want to end by addressing my favorite scene of the film, which is actually near the beginning. Following the battle scene, we are introduced to Lincoln, via two black soldiers discussing their pay versus the pay that goes to white soldiers. The dialogue is wonderfully written and the attitude of Lincoln is perfect, as he delivers his first of many monologues. There is some subtext here as well, as we get a first glance at how the film is coming down on certain issues and how Lincoln (and those who will battle with him) is going to have to stretch the limits of what is true and what matters in order to get a point across. Lincoln is not about the story of Abraham Lincoln as a whole, it is more focused and intimate, despite the multitude of characters present, and it is very well-acted and crafted. Spielberg manages to reign in the more syrupy aspects last seen in War Horse (which I really liked as well) and create a strong film about a man putting about the deserved end of a long struggle against something immoral. In doing so, he gets away from making the film feel too self-important and gets to the heart of a man during a specific and important moment in his life.
Abraham Lincoln: This settles the fate for all coming time. Not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come. Shall we stop this bleeding?