Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris | Written by Tony Kushner | Directed by Steven Spielberg
There are few names in American history that are as recognizable and respected as Abraham Lincoln. If you were to look at a list of the greatest American Presidents he is surely to be on or near the top every time. With a man so revered there is a certain amount of inherent pressure when you are attempting to tell his story. When thinking of who is up for this type of challenge you cannot do much better than Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis, and the rest of the star-studded cast of Lincoln. Having a great recipe doesn’t always guarantee a great meal, and having loads of talent doesn’t always guarantee a great film. There is a lot to admire with a film like Lincoln, but one wonders if it compromised being a grandiose achievement by placating and forcing a response full of emotional veneration. Rather than trusting in its own magnitude and using a lighter touch it makes what it is attempting to accomplish overtly evident. Moments that could have easily stood on their own accord were pronounced with such vigor that it cheapened an otherwise marvelous achievement.
Lincoln’s life was so extraordinary it would be impossible for one film to do it justice. Perhaps the best proof of that actuality is this film. This is not a biopic depicting all of Lincoln’s life. Instead it only focuses on one small portion of his years as President. The plot revolves around the debate and struggle that occurred when Lincoln attempted to abolish slavery by passing the thirtieth amendment. Many do not realize just how hard that fight was for Lincoln to win. With the Civil War near its end many argued that the abolishment of slavery would be the wrong way to reunite the country and would only hurt the process towards peace. Members of his own cabinet questioned Lincoln’s desire to get this amendment passed. They felt it would do nothing but prolong the already momentously bloody Civil War. Making Lincoln the centerpiece of this film comes with a certain difficulty. Lincoln is more than a man and he is even beyond legend at this point. He is a mortal deity that is as unfathomable as a person can get. In order for this conflict to resonate with us they had to humanize and debunk our already formulated mindset. Otherwise every moment would feel like a foregone conclusion. The film overcomes that issue by presenting us a Lincoln that is subdued and hushed rather than robust and attention seeking. For the first time Lincoln felt like a real person. A lot of credit has to go to Spielberg, Day-Lewis, and screen writer Tony Kushner. They gave us a multitude of small moments that devolved the grandiose nature we immediately apply to Lincoln. Seeing Lincoln quietly lying with his son and having to deal with difficult family issues showed he was more like us than we realize.
Daniel Day-Lewis is an actor known for his bombastic roles in films like There Will Be Blood and Gangs of New York. He has given performances that command and transfix our concentration for every second he is on screen. Here we have a performance that is patient as it lingers for the right time to call attention to itself. His softly spoken voice and welcoming demeanor transform Lincoln from a statuesque symbol into a warm father figure. This is not a Lincoln that gives speeches this is a Lincoln that tells stories with a soft hand on our shoulder. When it was needed they allowed Lincoln to be the man we all expect him to be, and Day-Lewis was just as captivating as ever in those scenes. For a man like Day-Lewis, who has such a luxurious career, it’s almost always hyperbole to call a performance one of his best. Why this may not be a unanimous favorite it is certainly in that argument. Even when he isn’t saying a word your focus is pointed straight towards him wondering how he perceives his current situation. Day-Lewis never wastes a second keeping his acting active when he is simply listening to those around him. He exemplifies masterful working by using his eyes and facial expressions to exhibit his inner calculations.
In fact the performances all around were stellar. This had one of the best assemble casts in recent memory. One of the most notable supporting roles was Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. This served as a reminder of how dynamic an actor Tommy Lee Jones can be. When the film was dominated by this wondrous cast it was at its best. Steven Spielberg is one of the most cinematic directors of all time so it was surprising to see this film have such a static camera. In a way it was barely a movie, but that is not meant to be an insult. A large fraction of scenes were solely driven by dialogue, yet it never lost its tension filled atmosphere. Having a sharply written script and a vibrant cast permitted Spielberg to take a backseat at times.
Unfortunately when Spielberg’s film style did take hold it nearly ruined the movie. While I am a huge Spielberg fan his tendency lately has been to revert to overplayed ‘classic’ Hollywood tactics. At times he entered into Warhorse like territory when the earnestness and empathy of the moment were over emphasized. Watching a group of African American soldiers recite the Gettysburg address to Lincoln went beyond pandering to the audience and entered a land of cheesiness that nearly derailed an otherwise fantastic opening. Time and time again Spielberg would call out what he was attempting to convey like a sports commentator over explaining a football game. No one can bring a childlike wonderment to a film quite like Spielberg, and that skill has lead him to create some fantastic movies. The issue is that skill does not belong in this movie. We do not need a group of State Representatives applauding a contingent of African Americans as they walk into the Capital building, or a house worker at the White House giving a glazed look of admiration to Lincoln as he slowly walks down the hallway. It was extremely noticeable when the film would demand a certain emotional response. Especially when you compare it to the rest of the film that was a lot more confident. What could have been some of the film’s best sequences were tremendously cheapened through overzealous directing.
The missteps in Lincoln did not ruin the movie, but they did hold it back from being great. The pedigree involved in this production is nearly impossible to beat. Much of that pedigree comes out in full force. The acting, cinematography, and art design are remarkable at nearly every turn. The good greatly outweighs the bad, but the bad is impossible to ignore. What could have been a cold textbook drama turned out to be a personal tale of one of our nation’s greatest struggles. Purposeful or not it is fitting this film is released in the same year as a tumultuous Presidential Election. It serves as a reminder that no great accomplishment can be attained without a great struggle, and it shows us the true terror division can cause. Lincoln gives any moviegoer countless aspects to admire, nonetheless its ambitious desire hinders it from being legendary.
Lincoln is released on DVD and Blu-ray on June 10th.