The magnum opus of presidential biopics.
It’s impossible to deny that Steven Spielberg is one of the most successful directors in history. He can be the cool one to hate sometimes, due to his tendency to rely on sappiness and sentimentality – and of course, some can’t forgive him after what Kingdom of the Crystal Skull did to the Indiana Jones franchise. Even so, Spielberg will always remain dear to many moviegoers’ hearts with gems such as Jaws, Indiana Jones, E.T., Schindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan under his belt. However, ever since Minority Report, Spielberg’s track record hasn’t lived up to his legendary status. For years, Spielberg has been hard at work on Lincoln – a fully-realized biopic of arguably the greatest American president. In the end, is Spielberg’s epic portrait good enough to redeem him of his more questionable recent films?
At the start of Lincoln, it’s January 1865, and the American Civil War is still raging on. Battered down by the pressure of this war, political corruption, his grieving wife Mary (Sally Field) and simply old age, President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is seeking every possible way to end the grisly war swiftly. Sure, he has seen success in the Emancipation Proclamation – despite intentions to save the union instead of truly desiring to abolish slavery – and of course his recent reelection. Even so, the President is desperate to find a solution. Thankfully, a practical resolution is found in the form of the proposed Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which would officially illegalize the act of slavery nationwide. The bill was conceived as a final war measure to hopefully render the Confederacy entirely economically-unfeasible; however, due to Lincoln’s expectation that the war will end within a month or so, he also reasons the Emancipation Proclamation will soon be discarded by the courts. Thus, he insists that the bill must be passed by the end of the month in order to end the war in a timely fashion and keep the freed slaves in their current condition. With that, the President and members of his cabinet set off on a mission to secure the right number of votes needed to pass the bill between the Republican and Democratic parties.
Lincoln is quite possibly the best film Steven Spielberg has made since Saving Private Ryan; I know that’s a clichéd thing for a critic to say, but it’s the honest truth. Not since that film has everything come together so harmoniously in his work. What makes Lincoln stands out from many of his recent films is that it brings out the best of him as a director, especially since the excellent script transcends Spielberg clichés and digs into the reality of what occurred and of course each historical figure’s psyche. I had faith that Spielberg wouldn’t allow his absolute dream project to strictly romanticize the President, but I was still surprised at how accurately Tony Kushner’s script detailed Lincoln’s politics and many other historical aspects of the story. I also found it surprising that this film’s title is more of a marketing ploy; Lincoln is not entirely about the towering, bearded man who led our country so many years ago. The film avoids merely summarizing his life, unlike nearly every other biopic in existence, instead focusing on his legacy – what he accomplished by pushing forward the vote to pass the 13th Amendment and subsequently ending the Civil War. Sure, this film still does Abraham Lincoln justice by stripping away the common misconceptions many Americans have about him and expose him as a human being. After seeing the film and learning about his controversial policies, I actually appreciated him even more; Lincoln succeeds at making him relatable.
I felt that Lincoln is equal parts a realistic human drama and – dare I say it – political thriller. On one side of the coin, this film goes to great depths to humanize its many characters (credit must go to the fantastic cast). An outstanding aspect of Lincoln is that even though the entire film is a dialogue-driven story – aside from a brief war scene in the opening – the script is still clever enough to make this 2½-hour-long story compelling. Lincoln depicts the effort to pass the 13th Amendment as a political war of sorts, which is particularly interesting since there are scenes centered on planning the final phase of the Civil War. There are pre-planning meetings, campaigns to gain support for the bill, and finally the actual vote itself. When the story finally reaches the point where the concluding debates before the vote are taking place, the film suddenly becomes tense and exciting, making for some of the most unique movie moments of the year. Outside of these scenes though, Tony Kushner’s script remains a standout as one of the year’s finest. Kushner’s vocabulary is impressive enough on its own, but amidst the general theatricality of the dialogue the script still shows shreds of humanity, with realistic conversations between characters and some great humor sprinkled here and there. There are genuinely funny moments in Lincoln, and thankfully they don’t distract from the drama and stakes of the story at hand. There are so many things to delve deep into here due to the many layers of the story, but in summation Lincoln is one of the best-written dramas I have seen in quite a while. Not only does this film accurately detail the president’s personality and political motivations, but Kushner makes politics unexpectedly exciting, and writes a simply impressive script that could easily work on a stage as well.
I don’t think that there was any shred of doubt that Daniel Day-Lewis would be great in Lincoln. He does not disappoint; his portrayal of the great President is the performance of a lifetime, and Lincoln will assuredly earn him an Oscar nomination, if not a win. Day-Lewis essentially became Abraham Lincoln in the production of this film; he is so staggeringly convincing with what he does on screen. Daniel Day-Lewis’ transformation was made complete by some terrific make-up work, making him appear nigh-indistinguishable from the actual president. Aside from appearances, the key aspect of what makes this portrayal of Abraham Lincoln so distinctive and realized is that Day-Lewis exposes the aspects of why Lincoln was actually much different than most Americans may think. His Lincoln is a quiet, weakened and aged man which conflicts with the common consensus that he had a deep voice and commanding presence. This unique but accurate portrayal allow for Day-Lewis’ performance to be exponentially more poignant toward the end, because by that time we see the President express true outbursts of anger and frustration. Simply put, Daniel Day-Lewis expectedly gave one of the greatest performances of the year, and perhaps the decade thus far.
Fortunately, Day-Lewis doesn’t need to carry this film all by himself- his supporting cast is equally great. The ensemble case is too large to delve into completely since so many recognizable faces can be seen in Lincoln, but there are still actors that deserve recognition here. Sally Field portrays Abraham Lincoln’s wife Mary, and she is fantastic. We see her character tormented by her husband’s political motivations, the haunting memories of her son’s death, and terrible cases of bipolarism. David Strathairn is also at his best as Lincoln’s Secretary of State, while Jared Harris, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and many others provide great dramatic and comedic relief in their supporting roles as various politicians engaged in the fight for the 13th Amendment. Although his scenes are few and far between, Joseph Gordon-Levitt once again rides down the road of success in a memorable role as Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of Abraham and Mary. If anyone deserves awards attention for a supporting performance though, it would be the one and only Tommy Lee Jones. Going into this film, I expected Daniel Day-Lewis to be the absolute scene stealer, but I was dead wrong. Tommy Lee Jones portrays Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, who I remember from history class as a Congressman who firmly believed in abolishing slavery and punishing the South. This is echoed in the film since Jones ever-so-entertainingly portrays a blunt, commanding and often hilariously offensive supporter of the 13th Amendment. His scenes in Lincoln are among its best, and I was excited every single time he came on screen. Tommy Lee Jones previously won an Academy Award for his memorable performance alongside Harrison Ford in The Fugitive, and hopefully he also garners some attention amongst the Academy for what he has done in Spielberg’s latest.
Lincoln is an interesting film for Steven Spielberg to tackle, especially since many of his recent works have been hampered by sentimentality and nostalgia. It worked for War Horse, but Lincoln represents a change of pace for Spielberg’s direction, and I like it. Steven Spielberg is one of my favorite directors of all-time, and in Lincoln, he successfully blends his genuine showmanship with two contrasting characteristics: grit and realism. Saving Private Ryan was profoundly affecting because of how Spielberg realistically depicted combat in World War II and its disastrous effects on humanity; in similar ways, Lincoln reflects the nature of politics as a war of words and the struggles that humans face with immense power. Spielberg captures that essence expertly since this is truly an acting piece, and this is emphasized by the fact that a grand majority of the cinematography and editing choices were made to give breathing room for actors that give more theatrical performances. That’s another unique aspect about Lincoln – it’s more of a stage play than a film, but it still works elegantly as a movie due to the technical mastery. Virtually every aspect of Lincoln has the epic grandeur of a dramatic production, but at the same time the limitless nature of film and the magic of Hollywood blend harmoniously with the superb production design, and creates one of the most tangible realizations of 1860s America that I have thus seen on film. It’s a shame that John Williams’ score doesn’t stand out in the same way, though. Williams is my favorite film composer, but I just felt let down since his music here is often manipulative of emotions, and the score sounded like a rehash of themes he composed for previous Spielberg films.
Lincoln will very likely end up in my final list of the best films of the year, because Spielberg’s latest is also his greatest achievement in at least a decade. Not since Minority Report and Saving Private Ryan has a Spielberg movie left a profound effect on me, but Lincoln certainly accomplished that. Daniel Day-Lewis is at his absolute best in what will eventually become a truly iconic performance, and his supporting cast is no less impressive in this grand, but subtle epic of politics and human drama. A prolific director amassed a team of gifted actors, an intelligent writer, visionary production designers and one of the greatest composers of all-time to create something truly special. Lincoln raises the bar for biopics in every way, and the script manages to strike the perfect balance between being informative and entertaining. Abraham Lincoln himself has become a legend, and Spielberg’s love letter to him may live on as perhaps the greatest film ever made about an American president.