When you learn that Steven Spielberg is making a movie about Abraham Lincoln, your ears should perk up. When you hear that the man portraying Lincoln will be one of, the if not THE greatest actor currently living, you should be paying full attention.
It's been more than a decade since Spielberg initially acquired the rights to the underlying Doris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. After a lengthy pre-production period, Lincoln finally hit theaters this month—less than eleven months since the director released War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin almost concurrently.
The title might be a bit misleading. Lincoln is not a conventional biopic of our sixteenth president, but rather a detailed look into a specific slice of his presidency. Yes, it is the crowning achievement of his time in office - the passage of the 13th Amendment, which signaled the constitutional end of slavery in the United States. But the film is less "about" Lincoln's life specifically as it is about the tense political process that surrounded him in late 1864 and early 1865, at the tail end of the Civil War and only months before the end of his life.
The dilemma facing Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) was as follows: negotiate to end the war as soon as possible to prevent an even greater loss of life, or extend it long enough to pass the amendment. In Lincoln's eyes, the Confederacy was fighting over a desire to maintain their way of life, which was inextricably linked with slavery. A negotiated peace may not result in an abolishment of slavery, whereas a passed amendment would certainly end slavery and would likely be followed by the end of the war. When someone loses what it is they're fighting for, what reason do they have to continue fighting?
Among the complicating factors (there were many) was prominent Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), whose desire for complete racial equality scared even those who sought an end to slavery, and a lack of Republican votes necessary to pass the amendment. This meant that a certain number of Democrats would need to change sides, and anyone that knows anything about American politics knows that swaying people to change their position is a daunting task.
I'm a bit conflicted when it comes to Lincoln. On the one hand, it's rare, if not nonexistent, to see this detailed an exploration of the constant game that is American politics. It's also impossible to ignore Lincoln's relevance - just think of the irony that the weekend the film hit theaters, disgruntled "Americans" from twenty some odd states filed petitions to secede from the Union.
But on the other hand, the methodical pacing and step-by-step maneuvering render portions of the film quite dull. It is, after all, two and a half hours of political posturing. The final vote that serves as the film's dramatic climax is a microcosm of the film as a whole - it's a simple yay or nay vote (the outcome of which we already know) elevated by some colorful characters and quality acting that falls a bit short of what one would consider compelling.
That being said, there is certainly credit due when it comes to just how detailed Lincoln is. From the dialogue to the costumes and the set design, the authenticity would be hard to question. Lincoln feels more like cinematic theater than it does a traditional motion picture, but coming from Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner, I suppose that was to be expected.
It is also one of the least "Spielberg" Spielberg films in quite some time. It's restrained almost throughout, which makes it all the more difficult to swallow the self-indulgent final several minutes. Spielberg had his ending, and then decided to go just a bit longer seemingly because he felt obligated to do so.
I understand not wanting to depict the obvious and the inevitable, but the film's conclusion leaves a lot to be desired, and left me thinking something along the lines of "there's the Spielberg I've come to know."
Daniel Day-Lewis is ... well ... Daniel Day-Lewis. There isn't anything I can say about the actor that hasn't already been said. He doesn't portray Lincoln, he becomes Lincoln. The performance is one of a man far more conflicted, yet every bit as unflinching as we've been told Lincoln was. He is a man battling not only political foes, but his own morality and a damaged family as well.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn't get much screen time as Lincoln's seemingly estranged son, but he's effective nonetheless. And Sally Field paints a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln that suggests a different reason for her erratic behavior.
The rest of the exceptionally large cast is equally strong. There is hardly a character that shows up that isn't played by a recognizable face, and there are far too many to recognize individually. However, some of the more memorable sequences come via James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson as a group of slimy operatives given the task of basically bribing representatives for their votes. In a movie that feels too long, the three feel underutilized. They give the film some of its funnier moments, and Spader in particular really steals the show.
Lincoln is a good film. It's predictably well made and the ensemble cast is as good as advertised. But after its overlong run time, you can't help but feel a bit disappointed.