Much of what you may have heard of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is that principally the film is a biographical drama, which is not entirely true. The film takes the important last four months of the great man’s life and tells in considerable detail the discussions and debates that lead to the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment. It’s an undeniably fascinating exercise in turning the minutiae of political debate and intrigue into entertainment, but it’s not exactly biographical. Abraham Lincoln is certainly the driving force behind everything that occurs, but he is just one of the many fascinating characters of the period that the film portrays as being instrumental in passing the bill that will eventually lead to abolition and the end of the Civil War. To learn more biographical information about the man you’ll have to look elsewhere.
The film opens with an immediate sense of cinematic importance. The sound of thunder echoes in the distance while the title Lincoln appears in plain white letters over a black background. And then we’re plunged into the horrors of the civil war.
At first you might be mistaken for thinking that Spielberg is about to do for the civil war what he did for D-Day. The battle we witness is quite graphic in a way we rarely see the war portrayed on the big screen. The fighting is so messy with its use of bayonets and hand-to-hand combat you feel quite certain that no civil war re-enactors will be able to duplicate this battle. But the sequence lasts for just a couple of minutes at the most; it’s just enough to let us know that the war is still in full swing. From that moment the rhythm of the film changes dramatically to that of a drama.
The trailer and advertising hype gives the impression that Lincoln could possibly be Spielberg’s Lawrence of Arabia – a drama with epic spectacle – but you’ll be disappointed. As one colleague who was less than impressed with the film, Lincoln is more like 1776 without the humor or the music; it’s debate, discussions and political maneuvering with the occasional nod to Lincoln’s family conflicts. Playwright Tony Kushner’s intelligent but talky screenplay feels like an adaptation of a Broadway play expanded for the screen.
Lincoln’s family matters concerning scenes with his wife (Sally Field) and his son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) pale in interest when compared to the political debates and behind-the-scenes intrigue with other politicians. While all performances are uniformly good – both Gordon-Levitt and Fields are perfectly fine in what they do – their moments come across as padding; it’s the politics at the center that really holds your attention.
Lincoln is a handsomely mounted film of great moments. The exchanges between James Spader and John Hawkes both grip and entertain; Jackie Earle Haley effectively conveys the frustration of the South in one short scene, and Tommy Lee Jones makes Thaddeus Stevens so interesting as an important historical figure that I wanted to know more, but the film belongs to Daniel Day Lewis. His Lincoln has to be as close to the real thing than anything we have previously witnessed on the screen. With his imposing and towering presence, his upper register delivery and the slight twinkle in the eye as he relates yet another anecdote, this is the Lincoln you’ll always remember. This may not be the film that many will expect or even want, but they’ll never forget Daniel Day Lewis.
MPAA PG-13 Length: 149 minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)