Published November 09, 2012
After last year’s disappointing “War Horse,” Steven Spielberg returns with “Lincoln,” a mesmerizing and powerful history lesson, and the director’s most subtle film to date.
Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln reaffirms he is one of the most talented actors ever to grace the silver screen. He is a force of nature, a chameleon that convincingly changes with each role, and here, once again, he is a marvel to watch.
Get your Oscar bets in early, because we may have a winner.
Day-Lewis’ portrayal is subtle, elegant, poignant and always commanding. Nobody can be completely sure what Lincoln was really like behind closed doors, but Day-Lewis convinces this was Lincoln: a compassionate, soft-spoken, gentle giant, as well as a shrewd politician.
Playwright Tony Kushner’s tight script is two and a half hours and dialogue-heavy, but naturally flows with an intensity of a brisk stage play. Even though we know the ending, Kushner’s excellent pacing and dialogue keeps the pulse pumping as the clock ticks down to the fateful climax, though Spielberg does tack on an unnecessarily sappy ending, forcefully driving his message home instead of letting the beautifully subtle actions over the course of the film speak for themselves.
“Lincoln” takes place during the President’s final few months, having just been re-elected to a second term, with the Civil War taking a toll on the country and the future looking grim. We follow the president’s labyrinthine approach to adding the 13th amendment to the Constitution and the political struggle behind the momentous vote.
Like many of Spielberg’s movies, “Lincoln” is a war film, but not like “Saving Private Ryan” or “War Horse.” This is a war of politics, as Lincoln struggles to add the amendment, sparking contention within his own cabinet and pitting the liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats in a fierce partisan war. And for a film staged like a play, “Lincoln” is gripping and intoxicating from start to finish.
Spielberg, Kushner and Day-Lewis bring the iconic figure out of the history texts and humanize him. Lincoln is portrayed as a compassionate leader and a sly salesman. He’s a loving father and an argumentative husband. He understands the need to free the slaves but is cautious of the negative backlash. He’s wise and funny, often proselytizing, slipping into anecdotes rich with wisdom to ‘convince’ his fellow public servants to see things his way.
These anecdotes are often humorous and show Lincoln’s deep intellect and lawyerly skill. Consequently, they show how infuriating Lincoln’s idealist diatribes could be to his contemporaries, again giving credit to Kushner and Day-Lewis’ rich portrayal of the president.
Spielberg is typically a very technical director, letting the overall magic of the production become the centerpiece of the film, but “Lincoln” is a rare film in the director’s repertoire. Like “Schindler’s List” and “Amistad,” Spielberg lets the performers take the lead.
“Lincoln” is packed with Oscar-worthy performances. Apart from Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field are at their best. Joining them is a remarkable ensemble cast featuring, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley and Jared Harris.
Though “Lincoln” feels more like a play than a film, and will appeal mostly to history and political buffs, it is one of Steven Spielberg’s best and most important movies.