Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” was one of my most anticipated films of 2012. From the early information surrounding the picture, there were so many things that grabbed my attention and peaked my interest. Of those things, nothing intrigued me more than the thought of Daniel Day-Lewis taking on the role of one of the most beloved presidents in American history. I stand by my belief that Day-Lewis is the greatest working actor in cinema today. Therefore the very thought of him submerging himself in this incredible character really excited me. I am also a sucker for well crafted period pieces and nobody does them better than Spielberg. But I’ve been a little skeptical of the director’s more recent work and that gave me reason to be cautious. Well now I’ve seen this 2 1/2 hour dialogue-driven epic and let me say it’s nothing short of spectacular.
It may surprise some people to see that this isn’t a film filled with sweeping Civil War battlefield sequences and an action-fueled feel. No, this is a very talky and very political movie that follows the final four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life. It particularly focuses on his fight to pass the 13th Amendment which would abolish slavery. Instead of incorporating mammoth sized historical set pieces, Spielberg looks at the man and the people who surrounded him during this tumultuous time in our nation’s history. The characters and the drama unfolds through the incredibly crisp script that sucks you in from the first moment. Now a movie like this has potential to trip over itself by doing too much. But I found that the grounded approach to the storytelling and the more character-driven narrative worked extremely well and I was enthralled from beginning to end.
While this isn’t a movie dependent on flashy visuals, Spielberg still gives a lot of attention to details. He also goes to great lengths to make this the most vivid portrayal of the 16th president ever to be put on film. He gives us more than just the iconic image that we see carved in marble at the Lincoln Memorial. This is a deeper look at a man struggling under the burden of the Civil War. Lincoln is shown to be a flawed man who has a good heart but is not without problems of his own both politically and personally. We see him use shady political tactics in an effort to secure the votes to pass the amendment. We also see him make questionable decisions related to the war that carry serious consequences. Then there are family issues between him and his wife Mary (wonderfully played by Sally Field) and his oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). These bits do a great deal to humanize this intriguing figure.
Spielberg also puts a tremendous amount of effort into creating the historical context of the film. The wranglings between Lincoln, his cabinet, and the House of Representatives give life to the political tensions of the time. And while the Civil War isn’t the main focus of the picture, the effects of it, the desires for peace, and the uncertainty that will follow are all interwoven throughout the narrative. The tensions of the war are simmering under the surface and the turmoil it’s brought weighs heavy on everyone involved. All of these things feel genuine and there is a legitimate historical weight to the story. But I did think Spielberg oversimplified the South, their motivations, and positions. There are other movies that do a better job of showing both the north and the south during that time. That said, no movie has ever depicted the life of Lincoln and the political environment of our war-torn country better than Spielberg. It’s an amazing accomplishment.
Speaking of accomplishments, I have to talk more about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. Let me just say that the Best Actor Oscar may have been decided with the release of “Lincoln”. Day-Lewis is phenomenal. He is an actor known for his intense research and for his ability to get lost in his characters. Here he gives us a stand-out portrayal of Lincoln filled with detailed uniquenesses from his higher pitched voice to his physical postures and mannerisms. You quickly find yourself immersed in the character and you feel as though you’re really watching Abraham Lincoln on screen. Day-Lewis is brilliant and he even managed to exceed my lofty expectations. It’s a master class in acting.
And then there’s the marvelous supporting cast around him. I’ve already mentioned Sally Field and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. We also get Tommy Lee Jones in a somewhat stilted role but a fantastic one nonetheless. There are also some great performances from Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, John Hawkes, Lee Pace, and Gloria Reuben. Even better, Spielberg gives each character their own moment to shine regardless of how small of a role they may have. But the entire film revolves around the performance of Day-Lewis and he knocks it out of the park.
“Lincoln” may not be what you’re expecting but I found it to be mesmerizing cinema. There are a couple of historical shortcuts and a couple of unnecessary moments of Spielberg being Spielberg. But overall this is a phenomenal historical drama anchored by yet another stunning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. You simply can’t take your eyes off of him. This is an unforgettable picture and one of Spielberg’s best in recent years. It’s an amazing look at an iconic president. It doesn’t worship him but it doesn’t diminish him either. Instead we get a poignant and moving look at a man who led our country through its most difficult time. It’s a movie that I won’t soon forget and also one of the more Oscar worthy films of 2012.