A film review by Craig J. Koban November 28, 2012

RANK:  #18


2012, PG-13, 149 mins.

Lincoln: Daniel Day-Lewis / Mary Todd: Sally Field / Robert Lincoln: Joseph Gordon-Levitt / Seward: David Strathairn / Stevens: Tommy Lee Jones

Directed by Steven Spielberg / Written by Tony Kushner, based on the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN, as its title would suggest, certainly has the16th President of the United States as it key point of focus.  Yet, Lincoln is but one of many key players at the heart of this politically enthralling drama.  

Calling this film LINCOLN is almost a bit of a misnomer, seeing as it’s less a standard order biopic chronicling the life of the "Great Emancipator" than it is a more tightly confined narrative chronicle of the president trying to free the slaves and end the Civil War.  It keenly focuses on the emotional and political struggles of the final months of Lincoln’s life as he intensely labored – against nearly impenetrable opposition – to pass the 13th Amendment and, in turn, call for a surrender of the Confederacy.  As a result, the film not only is a handsomely mounted and riveting tribute to Lincoln’s life, but also becomes a deeply involving back-stage political yarn. 

Yet, make not mistake about, Lincoln was indeed a great man with a singular vision of ensuring the freedom and liberties of all people, regardless of color, which was not among established tastes of the time.  I have often thought of him in purely clinical terms with regards to his historical accomplishments, which were grand.  Yet, what Spielberg and his screenwriter Tony Kushner do is to take someone that has become a mythical figure in American history and paint a portrait of him as a calm, soft-spoken, gentile, and down-to-earth man of the people that liked to engage friend and foe alike with stories and anecdotes.  Labeling Lincoln as “folksy” is appropriate, but perhaps a bit too narrow minded of a descriptor.  He’s shown in the film having a disarming manner with people, but he still was a shrewd, intelligent, patient and deliberate political tactician that often had his way with his opponents.  

More than that, LINCOLN shows how unstable and potentially explosive the whole political climate was in the 1860’s, something that Spielberg and Kushner, no doubt, are trying to mirror to contemporary politics.  The film deals with the period between January and April of 1865 as Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has just been newly re-elected, but is nonetheless torn apart by not only by the ravages of the Civil War, but also by domestic and home front dilemmas.  His wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), still grieves over the death of their son in 1862, which causes great ripples in her marriage to Abe.  Politically, Lincoln also wages a personal and political war to ratify the 13th Amendment to forever abolish slavery through a hostile Congress. 



Lincoln’s battle to ensure the passage of the amendment would have crippled and stymied most presidents.  He not only had to ensure that not one Republican defected from a yes vote, but he also had to ensure that he get no less than 20 votes from the fickle Democrats.  Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) remains steadfastly loyal to his Commander-in-Chief despite his very own reservations that the amendment will pass, whereas his fiery and determined political opponents will stop at nothing to ensure that all those that they consider unequal before God will never be granted the same liberties and freedoms that they possess.  Intriguingly, Lincoln is not above recruiting a trio of semi-scummy and double-dealing negotiators (played by Tim Blake Nelson, James Spader, and John Hawkes respectively) to focus on convincing those required to vote for the amendment’s successful passage.  It’s a huge uphill battle, to say the least. 

Considering that Spielberg is at the helm, I was surprised by how stylistically subdued and restrained he is with presenting the world of Lincoln’s time.  To be fair, the film looks as historical accurate as just about any period film I’ve seen, and  Janusz Kaminski’s (Spielberg’s long-time cinematographer) muted and candle light compositions authentically render the darkened, pre-electricity White House halls and rooms.  Yet, Spielberg’s direction overall – for as richly considered as it is in some scenes, like in a brief prologue that includes some powerful Civil War imagery – is atypically subtle, abstaining from bravura and bold choices he’s known for; instead, he selflessly sits back at allows the dialogue and the performances stand out.   

It could be easily argued that this is Kushner’s film altogether.  His credentials hardly need embellishing; he worked with Spielberg once before, co-writing his brilliant MUNICH (which made my Ten Best Films of the 2000's list) and he is a Pulitzer Prize winner.  At first, LINCOLN comes off as obsessively talky, but the more you allow yourself to invest in the period-specific and appropriate inflections of its characters then the more you grow to appreciate Kushner’s desires to make the film’s language and exchanges feel like a palpable part of their time.  He also succeeds at the daunting task of framing Lincoln not in simplistic history textbook terms, but as opportunistic, passionate, cunning, and deeply flawed at times, but an unwavering champion of his causes.  You often gain a startling sense of the desperation and loneliness of the man; not many…even his closest allies…believed in their hearts that slaves even deserved to be freed. 

LINCOLN is also a film for Daniel Day-Lewis to quarterback and own as only he knows how.  I’ve seen him give impressively broad and theatrical performances (see GANGS OF NEW YORK and THERE WILL BE BLOOD), so I was surprised by how calmly modulated and low key he is as Lincoln, eliciting a man of great endurance, tolerance,  and moral authority that tries to win over people with a plain-spoken social polish and innate humanism.  The makeup to transform Lewis into Lincoln is superlative (he eerily looks like the president, especially in profile), but he flawlessly inhabits the persona of a man torn between his obligations to his family, presidency, nation, and the slave community that he so desperately wishes to liberate.  Theatricality would have been a grievous misstep here; Lewis portrays an assured man almost broken down – but never willing to submit – by his responsibilities to accomplish what no other president had before.  He has never been better in a role. 

LINCOLN is an actor’s paradise beyond Lewis’ Oscar nomination worthy work.  Sally Field creates a compelling Mary Todd Lincoln that’s part unstable “crazy lady” (as her critics labeled her) and a stubborn, but head-strong first lady that would never bow down to norms and conventions of her era.  David Strathairn is reliably stalwart in his key-supporting role.  The one performance that comes close to rivaling Lewis’ is the indomitable presence of Tommy Lee Jones, who commands just about every scene he’s in playing radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, whose own deliberate support to end slavery made him a thorn in the sides of his opponents and fellow members of his party.  Jones is a master at lashing out acidic and sharp-witted insults at his political prey both behind closed doors and in Congress itself.  Hurtful words and language have never come off as so perversely and humorously poetic as they do here from Jones’ blunt mouth. 

LINCOLN falls a bit short of masterpiece status in a few areas.  The film begins rather ponderously and takes a good 20 minutes or so to develop some momentum, not to mention that there’s a somewhat ill-focused and undeveloped subplot involving Lincoln’s son (a decent Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that has recently left law school and now wishes to enlist with the Union to serve under General Grant, much to his parent’s vehement disagreement.  The film also squanders a potentially powerful ending of solemnity and grace: there’s a wonderfully evocative shot of Lincoln – all alone, slowly strolling through the darkened White House halls in the aftermath of his political successes – that would have been a pitch perfect closing shot.  Instead, Kushner and Spielberg let the film needlessly progress all the way to Lincoln's assassination (which is shown off-camera).  The proper resolution to this film would have been to end it with Lincoln’s victory, not with his tragic death

Nonetheless, LINCOLN is a welcome return to form for Spielberg, who has frankly been floundering a bit recently with middling efforts likes WAR HORSE and THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN.  To me, LINCOLN reaffirms Spielberg’s insistence on going outside of his normal populist tastes and comfort zone.  It’s pretty remarkable that a director that has made films about extraterrestrials, whip-cracking archaeologists, genetically engineered dinosaurs, and killer man-hungry sharks has also given us thoughtful and contemplative dramas about World War II (SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and EMPIRE OF THE SUN), slavery (AMISTAD), the Holocaust (SCHINDLER’S LIST), and an Olympic massacre (MUNICH).   And now comes LINCOLN, which amazingly could not be any more different than any of his past efforts, and that’s a welcome thing. 

  H O M E