This is not to say Lincoln is a bad film, not by any stretch. But, it is a film that is largely scenes of people talking to each other that don’t get to play on one of Spielberg’s big strengths.
I believe biopics are far more effective the more specific they are. It’s difficult for a two-hour feature film to adequately take in the scope of a significant human life. When the filmmakers cover as many years as possible, the intrinsic humanity of the subject gets lost. Spielberg and his collaborator, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the masterpiece Angels in America Tony Kushner, have wisely chosen to depict a four-month span near the end of Abraham Lincoln’s life, with the lion’s share of the film taking place over a period of about a month. And, they’ve hired a great actor in Daniel Day-Lewis to bring him to life.
Lincoln concerns itself primarily with the President’s goal to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. The Civil War is near an end and many supporters of the legislation are on board, because it will help force the Confederacy to surrender, not because they are strict abolitionists. Lincoln is fighting this battle on two fronts. He believes slavery is wrong and should be ended, but at the same time he is trying to broker an end to a war that has ravaged the country and seen hundreds of thousands killed.
Lincoln finds an unlikely ally in Thaddeus Stevens (the great Tommy Lee Jones), a radical Republican who not only supports an end to slavery but also favors full enfranchisement for African Americans. Lincoln plans to pass the amendment during a lame duck session of Congress, while a contingent from the South is en route to Washington to possibly negotiate peace.
Under the table, Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward (David Straitharn) enlist a trio of charlatans (James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes) to “convince” outgoing lame duck Democrats to break with party loyalty and vote for the amendment by offering them cushy government jobs upon their returns home.
The first praise I’ll pay for Lincoln is the effortless way Spielberg and Kushner have told a very complex story that requires a huge amount of exposition and characters. According to the press kit, Lincoln has at least 80 speaking roles. The film moves pretty briskly, and the audience is never at a loss for who all of these characters are and what their aims and motivation may be. The screenplay is a triumph of keeping all of these many plot threads coherent and together.
The cast is made up of a virtual who’s who of American character actors; it’s like our Harry Potter. But, it’s a London-born Irish citizen who brings our most famous President to life. There are many who say Daniel Day-Lewis is the greatest living actor, and when you watch something like Lincoln, it’s hard argue with them. This isn’t as showy a role as Bill the Butcher or Daniel Plainview; Lincoln is a much more internal and subdued character. But, once Day-Lewis appears on screen (which is in the film’s opening scene), he simply is Abraham Lincoln. His resemblance is uncanny and the audience takes to this Lincoln as if he had sprung forth from some mysterious archival footage. This is not the robot from the Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln attraction at Disneyland.
Tommy Lee Jones is really great as the short-tempered Stevens. In some ways, this is the plum role in the movie, as Stevens gets all the best lines. I’ve always found Sally Field to be a bit forced and actorly, but she’s quite good as Mary Todd Lincoln, bringing a rawness and reality to the role.
I also liked how the film is often very ambiguous about some of Lincoln’s actions. This isn’t a blind, hero-worshiping docudrama. He assumes powers that may not really be his to take, but does so because he feels it needs to be done to fight the war.
There’s a lot to like about this very good film, though I wish it would have been a bit tighter. There’s a subplot involving Lincoln’s son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), wanting to enlist in the army that never quite lands and could have been cut.
The film feels a bit stage-bound at times, and I really wanted to see Spielberg cut loose and give us an epic Private Ryan-like battle sequence. And, I’m always a little bothered by films that cover this material and marginalize the slaves. I realize this is Lincoln’s story, but I find it shortsighted to just have white people always saving the day. I’d love to see a film about the Underground Railroad some time.