For his entire life, the man and myth of Abraham Lincoln has mystified Steven Spielberg. The director has wanted to make a Lincoln-centric film for years, and he actually came close to doing it with his Schindler’s List star Liam Neeson in the lead role. But the project was eventually scaled down and reworked to cover a small period in the 16th President’s life surrounding the ratification of the 13th Amendment, and (with no offense to Neeson here) the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis stepped in to fill Lincoln’s shoes. With the film hitting theaters just days after a major presidential election in America, it seems like as good a time as any for the world’s most famous director to tell his version of these historical events.
Spielberg, a unquestionable master of visual language, chooses to let his actors and Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner’s dialogue do most of the work this time around, directing a deliberate and thorough picture that, as a result, feels almost nothing like a Spielberg film. There’s a gravitas that accompanies much of The Beard’s more serious work, but here he prefers long takes, slow pushes, and nearly imperceptible camera moves to circle and surround his actors and really let them go to town on this material.
Some have likened the experience of watching Lincoln to sitting in a history class, and to a large degree, that’s true. The story is interesting if not quite fully entertaining, you’ll certainly learn a lot if you pay attention, and it drags on a bit longer than you’d probably like. It has enthralling moments, sure, but I could never quite shake a feeling of slight boredom while I was watching; after all, it’s not like we don’t know how the story is going to turn out. Even Spielberg, try as he may, can’t make the process of procuring votes and passing an amendment a cinematic or breathtaking event. History buffs will instantly fall in love with this movie, but for those who aren’t necessarily imbued with a passion for politics or the governmental process, there isn’t a lot to latch onto.
Daniel Day-Lewis gives a stunning performance, and it seems like the man is trying to top himself every time he makes another film. He’s notoriously choosy about his roles, and he succeeded at humanizing a historical figure who has become more icon than man over the past one hundred and fifty years. Prone to speak in parables, and in a much higher-pitched voice than a booming baritone we may have cooked up in our minds, Day-Lewis’ version of the man is stern, resolute, and Presidential when the situation calls for it, but he’s also an accessible family man and master strategist when he isn’t in the spotlight. My roommate told me that at one point while watching the film, he forgot he was watching Daniel Day-Lewis and actually thought he was watching Abraham Lincoln, and I agree with that sentiment; a striking physical resemblance aside, Day-Lewis embodies the man in a way that no other actor could.
I briefly considered making this paragraph nothing but names of the incredible actors Spielberg scored for supporting roles, but then realized that I’d just type out the entire cast list. This may be one of the most talented casts ever assembled in the history of cinema, but sadly only a few of them have a chance to truly shine here. James Spader, Sally Field, and David Strathairn are all really good, but actors like Walton Goggins, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, and Lee Pace are all capable of much more than they’re given here. It’s in this aspect that the film struggles most; the film’s cast is too good, so when you see these big name actors in smaller roles (even cameos like Dane DeHaan and Lukas Haas) it feels as if they should have more to do. The one standout supporting actor was Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, who was excellent as a whip-smart abolitionist.
I suppose the political themes and parallels are relevant to modern America’s societal issues, but I didn’t find that connection as captivating as a lot of my colleagues. For me, the only value I derived from Lincoln was seeing Spielberg do something different, watching Daniel Day-Lewis do his thing, and seeing these amazing character actors combined in one movie. If you’re looking for anything more than that, you’ll likely be disappointed with this one. But if any of those things interest you, by all means check this out. It’s about as big a piece of Oscar-bait as you’ll find until Les Miserables comes out on Christmas Day, so for those that are really into that sort of thing, you’ll certainly find a lot to like. I just wish I could say the same for everyone else. Until next time…