“Lincoln” has to be the best film that Steven Speilberg has made in years. However, it is not for everyone.
The plot revolves around the adoption of the Thirteenth Amendment freeing the slaves. As such, the film is all inside baseball. There is one very brief battlefield scene, but very little action. Many of the key events, such as Lincoln’s assassination, take place off-screen. This is one of the film’s great strengths, however, as it keeps the focus firmly on the subject matter–the freeing of the slaves. The film has a story to tell, and it is a very good one. If you wish to see heroic speeches and battlefield carnage, this film is not for you. This film is about the nuts and bolts of politics instead.
As such, it gives one of the most accurate and incisive portraits of Abraham Lincoln likely ever to be seen on film. Early on in the movie, Lincoln is at a cabinet meeting and is explaining why the 13th Amendment must be passed. In doing so, he lists the many possible legal deficiencies of the Emancipation Proclamation, and why it would likely be overturned by the courts after the war was over. Here, we see Lincoln’s subtle but logical legal reasoning–his strongest suit–displayed in full glory. It was primarily his legal reasoning, and not just his speeches and jokes, which propelled him to the presidency. Yet, in so many films of Lincoln, this is all we have. Here, we see the complete man.
If you like history, the film is a treasure trove of information. Sometimes this information is displayed for shock value. As a note, however, we were not shocked when Tommy Lee Jones went to bed with a black woman near the end of the film. We were shocked, however, when he took off his wig to reveal a perfectly bald head. (TMI?)
The film has numerous standout performances. Nearly all of the actors, in part through careful casting and in part through superb makeup, looked eerily like the people they were supposed to play. Indeed, when watching the film, there was the constant double-take, “Is that _____ playing _____?”
Certainly, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln must be on everyone’s best actress list. While the character she plays is by nature unsympathetic, she is able to humanize her and make her understandable, though still not completely likable. Both Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and James Spader as William N. Bilbo light up the film in scenery-chewing glory whenever they are on the screen. Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander H. Stephens is a model of how to hold one’s own as a character actor with only two scenes in a big film with many stars. David Strathairn as Secretary of State Seward is a nearly constant, though low-key companion to Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. As such, he is completely submerged in his role, and we had to read the end credits to see for sure who was playing Seward, even though Strathairn is one of our favorite actors. He gives no on-screen pyrotechnics, but that has to have been deliberate, as it would overshadow the absolute genius of Daniel Day-Lewis.
If Tommy Lee Jones makes the film crackle to life whenever he is on screen, Daniel Day-Lewis is the exact opposite. The thing that makes Day-Lewis’s performance great–perhaps the greatest performance seen on film in recent history–is that the film-goer is never conscious that he is watching Day-Lewis performing a role. Tommy Lee Jones is always going to be Tommy Lee Jones, and that is why we love him so. Sally Field gave a great performance as Mary Todd Lincoln and deserves whatever awards she gets for the role. However, after the first or second double-take, everyone knew that this was Sally Field playing a role. Day-Lewis, on the other hand, becomes Lincoln. It is almost as though we are watching Lincoln playing himself. If Speilberg had chosen to make this film in a cinema-verite style, one would be excused for at times thinking that we were watching Lincoln going about his daily life. Day-Lewis’s acting is a low-key as one can get, but it is perfectly Lincoln.
This sums up the very reason why some people will not like the film and think that it is boring. If you are a history and film buff who wants to see great film-making and acting, then this film is for you. If you are looking for a simplistic story with cut-out paper heroes and villains, then you will be disappointed, as the film shows the characters as real people. If you need explosions and tense action sequences to hold your attention, then perhaps you should rent a Michael Bay video.
But it would be your loss.
No nudity. No sex. Brief but disturbing images of violence and carnage. A little profanity.