Long time readers should remember that I am currently a political science major at West Virginia University. I’m fairly knowledgeable of not just current American politics, but the darker history of America’s political past. I’m an Aaron Sorkin junkie, and even if The American President overly romanticized the modern presidency, it still captured something refreshingly accurate about the modern legislative process (and had a great love story to boot). A biopic of Abraham Lincoln that pushes past the well-known stories of his presidency and focuses on his attempts to pass the 13th Amendment directed by Steven Spielberg (War Horse) starring Daniel Day-Lewis (Gangs of New York) seems like it would be right up my alley. And while Lincoln is full of interesting historical anecdotes and shows Lincoln as an intelligent politician (not just the nearly divine figure he’s become in American history, though it does that too), the film lacks an emotional, human core to hold this history lesson together.
Although, let’s face it, other than Munich, Spielberg’s “serious” films of late have felt more like cold, clinical experiments in cinematic technique than the grand celebrations of a movie-lover with more tools than he knows what to do with. In the past, Spielberg’s movies felt so full of life and wonder. E.T. remains one of the purest cinematic portrayals of the innocence and wonder of childhood ever made, and A.I. is (to me) one of the three definitive science fiction films of the 2000s and marks the end of innocence of childhood in as tragic but beautiful way as humanly possible. Spielberg’s status as one of America’s most important directors has apparently gone to his head and so many of his most recent films (especially War Horse) are dry and devoid of the emotion and honest humanity that made his best works so brilliant. Lincoln doesn’t fall as far as War Horse, but it constantly left me asking for something more substantive.
As stated, Lincoln is a narrowly focused biopic (a decision I actually applaud) that follows the last months of the Civil War and the efforts of President Lincoln to ensure the passage of the 13th Amendment. For those not familiar with the U.S. Constitution, the 13th Amendment banned slavery (contrary to popular belief, the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t ban slavery. It just freed the slaves in the Confederacy). With the help of his Secretary of State William Seward (David Straitharn), Lincoln must navigate the rat’s nest known as the U.S. House of Representatives. Not only must he contend with the factions within his own party (he needs unanimous support from the Republicans if it has any hope of passage), he must convince at least 20 House Democrats to vote for the bill they clearly loathe. And through the promise of patronage, intimidation, and outright bribery, Lincoln and his team get the job done (I hope to god that’s not a spoiler for you).
My primary problem with the film is that it consistently fails to humanize this mythic figure in American history. While the movie isn’t afraid to show the legally ambiguous/outright illegal tools Lincoln used (for good causes), he remains a deified figure throughout the whole film. He is rarely, if ever, shown as simply a man, albeit a man facing titanic pressure and seemingly insurmountable problems. Honestly, the only moment in the film that really explores the human problems Lincoln faced is a fight between Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), over whether to allow their son Robert (Looper‘s Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to enlist in the Union army. As we see just how crazy Mary Todd has become in the wake of the death of her son Willy, you get an idea of what Lincoln had to deal with in his personal life in addition to his now storied political gamesmanship. And it doesn’t help the film’s cause that Lincoln is shot in such gorgeous light so often that it seems like the film is trying to portray him as a god-like/angelic figure.
Thankfully, then, the film had more amazing performances than it could have possibly known what to do with. Daniel Day-Lewis won his third Best Actor Oscar for this film (although I honestly think Joaquin Phoenix did a better job in The Master) and his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is as transformative as anything he’s done to date. Daniel Day-Lewis is my favorite actor of all-time, but there were so many times in this film where it was easy to forget that I was watching my favorite actor. His Abe is as different from Gang of New York‘s Bill the Butcher as that was from The Age of Innocence‘s Archer Newland as that was from There Will Be Blood‘s Daniel Plainview. Although this performance lacked much of the emotional dynamism that I associate with Day-Lewis’s best roles, it’s still a master class on restraint and completely losing yourself in a part.
Although, with all respect to Daniel Day-Lewis, there were three other performances in this film that I found more compelling/interesting than his. Sally Field gave arguably the best performance of her entire career as the emotionally damaged Mary Todd, and I honestly have trouble believing that Anne Hathaway was better in Les Mis than Sally Field was in this role. David Strathairn (one of Hollywood’s most under-appreciated character actors) shined as the tough and passionate William Seward who is as responsible for the passage of the 13th Amendment as Lincoln himself. But the real stand-out performance of the film was Tommy Lee Jones’ fiery turn as Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens. He’s arguably the most moral person in the whole film (and easily the most idealistic), but Jones plays him with enough humor and passion and ferocity to turn it into one of the really memorable supporting turns of 2012.
I’ll draw this review to a close because my sister and I are hanging out today and I want to spend some time with her (and not my whole evening reviewing a movie). Lincoln is certainly worth your time, if just for the endless great performances alone. I lost track of how many times I wrote in my notes while watching this film, “Hey, it’s [insert great character actor] here,” and almost without fail, the performances were all “A”-caliber. And, if you’re a history buff, you’ll be fascinated by all of the different things Lincoln and his team had to go through to get that bill passed. Ultimately, I just wanted to know more about Lincoln, the man, than the historical accomplishments I’ve already read about so many times before.
Final Score: B+