by Shawnie Kelly (@DearShawnie)
Lincoln isn’t the epic saga one might expect from a Spielberg film set in war time, and it isn’t a biopic. Instead, it’s a brief snapshot in the life of one of history’s most beloved figures. This film is a tribute to the passage of the thirteenth amendment, not an in-depth look into the life of Lincoln.
The film opens soon after Lincoln is reelected to his second term and focuses entirely on his efforts to secure the remaining votes needed to pass the amendment in the U.S. House of Representatives. The biggest conflict, however, is not between House Democrats and House Republicans, it’s an internal party conflict with “radical” abolitionist Republicans obstructing a bill that they believe should be founded in the notion that all men are equal in the sight of God and man, not merely the law. While Lincoln’s proposed bill states that slaves, once emancipated, would be equal under the law, radicals take issue with the fact that it doesn’t mention anything of equality in the sight of God. It’s the behind-closed-doors politicking that brings this film to life as something other than a historical drama; it becomes something of a documentary-style sneak peek into the political process.
Dialogue-heavy and slow in pace, Lincoln could be tedious for some; especially those who might be more unfamiliar with Civil War history. The war itself isn’t a central focus — except to provide context for the timeline of the amendment’s passage — but the audience jumps into this tale from the middle. If you’re lacking previous contextual knowledge, you could easily become bogged down in the wordiness. One interesting point of contention is Lincoln’s desperation for the war to end while simultaneously needing it to continue until the amendment is passed. Some votes in favor of the amendment are believed to be only temporary in Lincoln’s favor due to the raging war. This theme could have been explored more, but the conflict is present throughout the film — a reminder that Lincoln was indeed a politician, not merely a saint.
Daniel Day-Lewis does what Daniel Day-Lewis does. His portrayal — rather, embodiment — of Lincoln isn’t an actor in a costume, it’s an actor that we forget is acting. Day-Lewis expertly crafts the long, drawn out gait of one who appears physically hindered by an invisible burden, while preserving the sparkling presence of a man who is known to have been a good-humored storyteller, an orator, and a peaceful presence. Even down to the higher than expected octave of his voice, Day-Lewis brings his best to the table once more. For every suggestion of Lincoln’s composed countenance is an equally present display of turbulence from Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field. Field does the job well overall, with only occasional bouts of hamming it up. Mary is still intensely grieving the loss of one of their sons, and the heartbreak comes across as genuine.
A handful of key players round the cast out nicely; one of several is Tommy Lee Jones, who happens to steal the show in my humble opinion. Jones plays the radical abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens who Lincoln must work with in order to capture crucial votes from those adhering to Steven’s same philosophies. He’s rakish and obnoxious and stands firmly in his convictions. Jones adds a certain spark to the otherwise monotonous courtroom scenes, of which there are many. Another surprising role was that of W. N. Bilbo played by James Spader. Bilbo — a disheveled, heavy-drinking, enforcer hired to procure votes — flits from scene to scene with grace; Spader adds comic relief in small, but necessary, doses. Robert Lincoln, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is a disappointment in some ways. Not on Gordon-Levitt’s part, who has proven in recent days to be a heavy-hitter and very capable, but in the storyline itself. Robert and his father have a somewhat tumultuous relationship, but the audience is left hanging in that regard. Sure, we know that Robert wants to break free from his father’s shadow and join the Union cause, but there seems to be an underlying issue there that is never fully explained.
The look of the film is cold at times; the set is by no means extravagant or highly stylized, but this actually serves to relay some historical accuracy. Shot by shot, it’s a highly contained movie with dark offices and candlelit bedchambers carrying the largest load in terms of setting. We stay in the same three or four areas throughout the film, which is interesting from Spielberg.
Lincoln is the critic’s darling and will no doubt create some Oscar buzz, of which it is mostly deserving. Daniel Day Lewis and Spielberg will be in the mix, and hopefully Tommy Lee Jones as well. While I enjoyed the film overall, there are times when it seems to have been made specifically with Oscar ambition. Within moments after opening credits, Lincoln is quoting Hamlet to his wife and instantly, audiences know what this film wants you to think of this film. Yes, history suggests he had been known to quote Shakespeare, but it’s an interesting way to set the tone of film. Aside from that, Lincoln captures the emotion of the moment well. During perhaps the ugliest time in our nation’s history, Lincoln brought enough dissenting opinions together and actually created change. It’s something that doesn’t happen often in politics, and this film pays tribute to that achievement.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars