It seems that the legend of Abraham Lincoln is as prominent as ever in our cultural zeitgeist. The last year has brought us tale of “Honest Abe’s” secret war against the undead (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) - and now, with Steven Speilberg’s Lincoln, Academy Award-Winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis attempts to convey the weight of burden the 16th President endured as he tried to pass the infamous Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States.
Along the path to that historic achievement, we get brushstrokes of Lincoln’s life between 1864 and 1865 (his final year) – including the complicated relationship with wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) and sons Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Tad (Gulliver McGrath). Outside of the personal, we also get an intricate look at Washington politics of the late nineteenth century – and all the eerie ways in which that era resonates with our own.
The title Lincoln might suggest a broad and sweeping look at the life of a historic legend – but in fact, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is more of a “biopic” than this film is. Spielberg’s Lincoln is a memoir (based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) dressed up as political drama. There is much about the film that will intrigue and amuse (more on that later), but there is little that will “excite,” as Lincoln is, ostensibly, a sequence of static, dialogue-driven scenes. As a whole, the movie is more stage play than cinema, with a nice amount of humor rising out of the ironically-reversed context of politics in that era. (For example, “conservative Republicans” of the time were anti-slavery “progressive radicals” we’d now associate with liberal Democrats.)
Most surprising about the film is how very “un-Spielbergian” it is. The director’s usual signature – over-dramatized scenes punctuated with rousing musical scores – is largely absent from the proceedings. In its place is a quiet, stripped-down approach, which both captures the rustic feel of the period in a genuine way, and allows the ensemble of actors free space in which to engage with one another. The overall sense of stillness throughout many scenes is akin to watching a high-production stage play – which might throw-off some viewers who are expecting the sweeping movement of a biopic – and the technique works (for the most part), given the level of talent in the cast.
Daniel Day-Lewis inhabits the role of Lincoln completely and thoroughly. While the big speech monologues are great, it’s the little touches that Day-Lewis adds to his portrayal that make all the difference, creating an image of Lincoln that is at once human, but still larger-than-life. We see the President as a quiet, almost zen-like figure – unassuming enough to go unnoticed in a room, but simultaneously shrewd enough to hold that same room’s attention with one of his zen-wisdom parables, delivered in the style of an old man’s doddering anecdotes. The actor’s choice of mannerisms, voice, and delivery are likely to become synonymous with Abraham Lincoln; we may never know what the man was actually like in person, but this portrayal suffices pretty well in reality’s stead.
Even the physicality is there: a tall, lanky, imposing figure who walks soft with the hobbling step of a weary ghost – fragile, vulnerable, sturdy and statuesque. Most of the time, Day-Lewis conveys the patience of a wise old grandfather enduring a petulant child (anti-abolitionist mentality) - but in several key scenes, the actor reveals a burning core that powers the idealist, instantly transforming him into a commanding figure – ready to break laws or compromise his morals when/where needed for the greater good – who can believably sway an entire nation to move in a seemingly impossible direction. It’s an awards-worthy performance, for sure.
The rest of the ensemble is made up of a cornucopia of familiar character actors and stars, including Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, James Spader, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, Tim Blake Nelson, Jackie Earle Haley, Gloria Reuben, Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire), Luke Haas (Brick), Walton Goggins (Justified) and Jared Harris (Mad Men) as General Ulysses S. Grant. Rising stars also get brief moments to shine, including David Oyelowo (Red Tails), Dane DeHaan (Chronicle), David Costabile (Breaking Bad) and Adam Driver (Girls). The ensemble, as a whole, functions well and keeps careful viewers occupied with an eye-spy game that offers many self-satisfying rewards. Standouts are Lee-Jones as the cantankerous equality idealist Thaddeus Stevens, Field as Lincoln’s (bi-polar?) wife, and the hilarious trio of Spader, Hawkes and Nelson as nineteenth century-style lobbyists working under the table for the Lincoln administration.
As stated, Lincoln is a movie of words, more than action. Aside from an opening sequence depicting the horror of a Civil War battlefield, the film is almost exclusively scenes of 19th century political theater. This will, inevitably, make it boring for some viewers whose tastes tend to skew away from this sort of genre. The movie can feel a little meandering and uneven at times (scenes of Lincoln’s personal life, for example, get somewhat overblown and soapy) – and in terms of traditional character arc Lincoln is not very satisfying. Tony Kushner’s (Munich) script leaves several story threads untied, but does manage to tie others off with nice surprise.
In its closing act, the Lincoln manages to capture the grandeur of the president’s great accomplishment – with Daniel Day-Lewis largely off screen, ironically enough. Though history already foretells the ending, seeing how close the determination of the nation’s fate actually was is still a tense experience – in no small part because the chords are so connected to the current political climate we live in. In the end, oddly enough, there is still a sense of mystery surrounding the man himself; after more than two hours we still come away wondering about what went on behind those weary, compassionate eyes, which were so attuned to a vision only he could see.
Lincoln is easily recommendable to those hoping for an intriguing and wittily-humorous look at a very pivotal (and still very relevant) point in U.S. history. Those hoping for a more expansive look at the celebrated figure, or a film that better captures the reality of war during that era, best look elsewhere. However, one thing we should all be able to agree on: Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance makes this a sure-fire contender come awards season.
Lincoln is playing in limited release; it expands to wide release on November 16, 2012. It is Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language.