Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McGill, Joseph Cross, David Strathairn, Walton Goggins, David Costabile, Gloria Reuben, Dakin Matthews, Jeremy Strong, Boris McGiver, Lee Pace, Jackie Earle Haley, David Oyelowo, Jared Harris, Martin Dew, Gulliver McGrath, Michael Stuhlbarg, Julie White, David Warshofsky. Written by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Nominated for 12 Oscars and hailed as director Steven Spielberg’s best film in years, Lincoln is at least somewhat (if not entirely) deserving of those accolades. A star-studded, expertly filmed and directed period piece, the majority of the film is engrossing and enlightening, a piece of History Channel infotainment writ large. Its box office success in the US ($150+ million) suggests that moviegoers aren’t averse to the material or concept, to which I say: wonderful.
Despite the title, the film isn’t at all a biography of Abraham Lincoln (ironically, 2012’s other big Lincoln movie, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, attempted a more biographical view). Instead, the film, based partly on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, focuses entirely on the time at the end of the Civil War when the president attempted to get the 13th Amendment ratified by congress.
Lincoln is played by Daniel Day-Lewis, who is expectedly terrific even though if the portrayal is unexpected: his Lincoln is so soft-spoken he rarely seems to speak above a whisper (it’s an unusual take on the larger-than-life president, but by most accounts, historically accurate). Despite the low-key work (or perhaps because of it), Day-Lewis handily commands the screen anyway. Bravo, sir. Here is your Oscar.
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, of course, and never would have been passed under “normal” circumstances. But times weren’t normal. The country was at war, and the president had assumed powers beyond his constitutional range to enact the Emancipation Proclamation. The war was almost at an end, and any negotiated peace or slave states returning to congress would mean slavery stays. The pressure was on.
If Lincoln was to abolish slavery, he had to do it right now. Going against the advice of his cabinet and vice president Daniel Seward (Daniel Strathairn), and his family, including wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) and eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the president would take any means he could – legal, ethical, or otherwise – to guarantee ratification.
That included gaining support of the Radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) – some of whom want to delay the bill for fear that it will be defeated; employing a group of lobbyists led by W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) to “buy” the votes of some conservative members of congress; and actually delaying peace negotiations between the North and South so he get the Amendment through.
Abe isn’t fighting vampire this time around, but the ratification of the 13th Amendment here is infinitely more entertaining than something like Vampire Hunter, which is a testament to Spielberg’s skills as a director. This is genuinely fascinating material, though I can’t say if foreign audiences will take to it with the same level of interest.
90% of Lincoln is excellent stuff, and up there with the best of Spielberg’s recent filmography. Unfortunately, once the 13th Amendment business is through, the film’s finale threatens to go off the rails. What transpires over the last 10 or 15 minutes of the film isn’t enough to sink Lincoln, but it lowered the film from ‘great’ to ‘very good’ for me.
First up is a terrible “reveal” featuring Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens. Watching the movie at a reasonably-full cinema in small town America, I could hear the eyes being rolled throughout the auditorium as Jones’ character reaches his groan-inducing arc. If the actor doesn’t win the Supporting Actor Oscar, it will be this single scene that sunk his chances.
And then (spoiler alert?) there’s a bait-and-switch theater sequence that isn’t what you expect; it’s played as an “arty” gag, and feels completely wrong. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter ended with a little gag about Lincoln going to the theater, and I simply couldn’t believe that Spielberg would attempt a similar wink-wink conceit, but here it is.
These two scenes dumbfounded me in such an otherwise elegant and fine-tuned production: they aren’t huge issues, but stick out like a sore thumb. It’s amazing that they were written, shot, and edited in their current form with no one in the cast or crew piping up to say what I think every audience member can recognize: no, this isn’t the way this material should be presented.
Still, Lincoln is otherwise a finely-tuned piece of work, with a terrific and expansive cast, gorgeous (Oscar-nominated) cinematography by Spielberg standby Janusz Kaminski, a sturdy soundtrack by John Williams, and wonderful period detail that doesn’t shy away from the horrors of war, even though it isn’t a central focus. A definitive biography of Lincoln this isn’t, but it’s an excellent look at the president’s political genius in passing the 13th Amendment.