Zimbio Review - Complex 'Lincoln' is Spielberg's Least Mainstream Film
The Bottom Line
Should you see it?
A great actor gets a rare chance to portray one of history's most famous figures. See Lincoln to see Daniel Day-Lewis.
Lincoln recalls Tom Hooper's great John Adams HBO miniseries in its conversation and invention of an era. Both works give the audience a ton of credit. As indecipherable as many find the language of politics and law today, the challenge is exponentially greater when combined with 19th century erudition. Critics will love Lincoln for its ambition, but many of the details will go right over audiences' heads. It's not a film for everyone, and it should be.
Spielberg's authoritative with Lincoln, depicting the President as he lived and interacted with those around him. Not much is known of Lincoln personally, but Spielberg plays up what we do know: the lawyerly elocution and his tendency to segue between thoughts into anecdote. The great President is just another man in the film. He's already a legend to the masses thanks to the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation, but he's not immune to infallibility and impatience.
If there's one aspect of the film that's universally admirable, it's Daniel Day-Lewis' performance. Lending the President a dignified soprano, Lincoln is first seen outside holding court with a number of Union soldiers. He speaks plainly with them and appears uncomfortable as one recites the Gettysburg Address in salute. Day-Lewis' Lincoln is a tired man whose sole purpose, to end the Civil War, drives him beyond health or personal concerns. He carries the weight of the country on his haunched shoulders and his passion is on display in his cabinet meetings. Day-Lewis revels in Lincoln's words, coming alive during the long takes Spielberg gives him. The performance is worthy of its weighty subject.
Lincoln is at the center of the film, but he's not the center of every frame. Spielberg takes care to place Day-Lewis in the frame's periphery, giving other characters just as much credibility.
Much time is devoted to a threesome of lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) who are tasked by Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) with recruiting lame duck senators to vote in favor of the 13th Amendment. Lincoln's White House is a machine with the President throwing switches. The film celebrates his political prowess, but gives ample credit to the men around Lincoln who helped shape the country from the inside.
More screen time is devoted to sessions of the House of Representatives as the 13th Amendment is argued and debated for weeks leading up to the final vote. Tommy Lee Jones rules many of these Congressional scenes as Thaddeus Stevens, a radical Republican whose flamboyance and wit help get the bill passed. Jones limps around with his cane, droopy-eyed and sporting a terrible wig. He's the film's most conflicted character, a staunch abolitionist who's sacrificed his ideals for the greater good.
Enemies in Lincoln come in the form of the House Democrats, led by Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie). Pace is especially strong as the loud, outspoken Wood, who lambastes the House with pro-slavery rhetoric. These scenes paint an ugly portrait of the politics of the time. The shouting is relentless, and, at times, hard to understand as people talk over one another and speak in metaphor.
Lincoln himself rarely has a conversation that isn't, at least, poetic. In the hands of a lesser actor, the dialogue might sound ludicrous, but with Day-Lewis, every word is natural, every thought perfectly vocalized. He commands rooms with his voice and segues into storytelling gracefully. His authority is belied, however, by a gentle touch evidenced by his interaction with his youngest son, Tad. A stark contrast to his rough handling of his eldest, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), whose desire to join the Union Army is a point of contention between Lincoln and his wife, Mary (Sally Field).
The supporting cast is equal to the task as well, the House is filled with quality character actors, including Michael Stuhlbarg as a conflicted Democrat and Hal Holbrook as a conservative leader. The exception is Spader, who's woefully miscast. He brings that trademark Spader "charm" that's marked the latter stage of his acting career to his role as W.N. Bilbo. He's hard to buy in a period piece. I don't see a Lincoln lobbyist, I see James Spader with a bad mustache.
Tony Kushner's script is garrulous, but remarkable. Adapting parts of Doris Kearns Goodwin's encyclopedic novel Team of Rivals, Kushner's milked every ounce out of every word, giving each line a heavy hand in the outcome of the film. There are no less than 100 speaking roles in Lincoln and every one matters. Historically accurate or not, hard to understand or not, the dialogue is something to behold.
Despite whether audiences embrace it, Lincoln will be remembered for Day-Lewis' performance above all. His face near the end shows the weight of his plight, a notion vocalized by Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) as the President responds. "Some weariness has bit at my bones." By the end, the audience has had a chance to catch up as all the commiserating and politicking leads to the passing of the Amendment. But is the resolution worth everything that's preceded it? Watching this film is work. Whatever the answer, solace can be found in the British/Irish actor's memorable turn as our country's greatest leader, a label more resonant now than ever before as our first black President embarks on his second term.