Lincoln (Touchstone Pictures, Dreamworks SKG, 20th Century Fox, 2012)
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tommy Lee Jones
Running Time: 149 Minutes
Rated: PG-13 for an Intense Scene of War Violence, Some Images of Carnage and Brief Strong Language
When I first heard several years ago that Steven Spielberg planned to do a movie about Abraham Lincoln, I got very excited. One of the greatest film directors of our time tackling a story of one of the greatest Presidents in American history is just exciting to think about. Say what you will about Spielberg’s political beliefs, but his historical films, from Shindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan, are some of the best in the genre. Now, over a decade after his decision to do a film about the Great Emancipator, Spielberg’s Lincoln finally hit the cinemas nationwide this past Friday. This has certainly become one of the more scrutinized films by historians and modern filmmakers. So, here I am to give my thoughts on this remarkable film.
For this film, Spielberg has assembled one of the greatest all-star casts ever assembled. But this movie truly belongs to it’s leading man: Daniel Day-Lewis. As I expected before seeing the film, Mr. Day-Lewis gives us what will surely be the definitive screen depiction of our 16th President. As the man has a penchant for doing, he delves into the role with a passion never seen by any actor who has donned the top hat. He truly shows the torment of the man who was overseeing the bloodiest war in American history, while also dealing with a wife whom he loves, though she does drive him angry at times, and the loss of his son Willie years ago. But he also shows Lincoln was a fiercely political animal, as he works to get the necessary votes needed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery, and with bringing an end to the war. But most of all, Lincoln shows the humorous nature of the man, telling yarns and jokes to help get his points across. In all three areas, Day-Lewis excels. If he doesn’t at least get a nomination come Oscar time, then something is definitely wrong with affairs in Hollywood.
Another actor who should be considered for an Oscar is Tommy Lee Jones, who portrays Thaddeus Stevens, a member of the Radical Republicans, and a strong voice for abolition in the U.S. House of Representatives. As usual, Jones gives a strong, humorous performance as a man who is not above insulting his Democratic rivals in the House to bring his point across to the people. He also shows that, despite taking a strong stance against slavery, he is willing to calm his rhetoric to get the amendment passed. This is definitely some of Mr. Jones’ finest work, and deserves some recognition come Oscar time.
Sally Field portrays Mary Todd Lincoln. I have to admit, I was slightly disappointed by Ms. Field in the role. She wasn’t bad. She just wasn’t as good as I thought she’d be. But she does manage to get some laughs, as well as some emotional intensity. It is possible that, had she had more screen time, her performance would have been more fleshed out. But still, she does a solid job in the role.
There are several notable minor roles that should be mentioned. James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, one of the three men hired by the Lincoln administration to “bribe” several key Democrats to vote in favor of the amendment. He is a very funny character, and Spader does good in the role. Also turning in fine performances are Lee Pace as Fernando Wood, a Democrat who stands against Emancipation; Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair, the Postmaster General who calls for Lincoln to attempt to bring the war to a peaceful end; David Strathairn as William Seward, Secretary of State, and Lincoln’s closest friend in the cabinet; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’s oldest son, and a man who wants more than anything to do his part by joining the army, and; Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. Although a very bit role, his performance comes off as very authentic, and he really gives you a good impression of what Grant was like in his short time in the role. The rest of the supporting cast truly does a commendable job in bringing this story to life.
Tony Kushner’s script covers a very short amount of time in Lincoln’s life, from January to April of 1865, the closing months of the war. But in choosing to focus on this short amount of time, we get to see two of the most important moments in American history: the final abolition of slavery, and the ending of the American Civil War. Here, we get to see Lincoln as a husband, a father, a politician, and as a human being, and how his involvement in affairs brought about great changes in our country. The script also provides Spielberg with his most character-driven piece to date. While the script does occasionally drag in places, it provides a thorough and emotional look at the events depicted in this film.
To me, there were only three weaknesses in the film. First and second, as already mentioned, are Sally Field’s slightly disappointing turn as Mary Todd Lincoln, and the tendency of the film to drag at times. But these are not a major problems with the film. The third weakness is in the choice of actor to portray Robert E. Lee in the brief depiction of the surrender at Appomattox. While the scene itself is depicted fairly accurately, the fact that they chose to cast a man who, although he looks like Lee in the face, is rather chunky to play the frail, skinny commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, is somewhat distracting from the emotional impact of the scene. But again, this is a minor quibble in an overall moving film.
The End (Spoiler Alert!)
As my friend Greg Caggiano said in his review of the film, the way Spielberg and Kushner chose to end the film is very moving, and different from how it is generally portrayed. Instead of seeing Lincoln at the theater, we see him prepare to leave the White House to go to the theater. And here, Lincoln gives a line that is meant to be off the cuff, but turns out being prophetic: “I have to go, but I wish I could stay.” Then, we see Lincoln walking down a corridor, as one of his help looks on. We then cut to Tad Lincoln, the President’s son, watching a performance of “Aladdin,” which is interrupted by news that the President has been shot. We then go to the Petersen House, where Lincoln dies. But the film does not end there. It ends with Lincoln giving his Second Inaugural Address. This is probably the most powerful scene in the film, as Mr. Day-Lewis gives a powerful rendition of what I believe is Lincoln’s greatest speech. The way Spielberg chose to end his cinematic story truly moved me to tears, and proved to be a powerful way to end the film.
Lincoln is definitely one of the greatest films made about Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War. From the amazing performances by Daniel Day-Lewis and an all-star cast, a powerfully-written script, to a moving finale, this is definitely the defining portrait of the man considered by many to be our Greatest President. If you have an interest in American history, or enjoy serious, thought-provoking drama, then Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is definitely a movie worth seeing.
Grade: 9 out of 10.