Now that I have your attention…
Okay, here begins my catching-up period on the past week’s new releases. I have thus far managed to avoid reading through any specific reviews of Lincoln so as not to mix my own opinion with others, but it’s been clear ever since the project’s beginning that the talent behind and in front of the camera made it clear Oscar-bait for the upcoming awards season. Typically, I’m somewhat turned off by that sort of buzz because it gives me the impression of “You had better like this movie, or else…” which just makes me want to dislike a film more than I should if only to spite pretentious critics. I’m happy to say that Lincoln does not suffer this effect, and while it does sacrifice some narrative qualities for historical accuracy and runs longer than it really should, Lincoln is a sharply scripted, wonderfully acted love letter to one of our nation’s greatest leaders.
As is the case with any historical biopic, Lincoln is both amplified and constrained by its place basis on real-life events. We all know how Lincoln rose to the presidency, we all know how the Civil War ended, and we all know the price Lincoln eventually paid for his resolve in the Ford Theater. Because of this, the film chooses to focus on Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th amendment to the constitution, which abolished slavery in the United States, rather than his entire life or the war itself. With the war passing its fourth year, Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) decides to put it all on the line and make on final push for that amendment. Unfortunately for old Abe, our government is not one which allows anything to happen quickly or painlessly, and the amendment is strongly opposed by the democratic party led by George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie) and his mouthpiece, Fernando Wood (Lee Pace). On top of that, a secret delegation of Confederate officers is on its way to negotiate a peaceful end to the war, a peace that would give Lincoln’s allies and foes alike a choice between ending the war and abolishing slavery; a choice that would overwhelmingly favor the former. With the help of political allies and a hired team of proto-lobbyists, Lincoln fights tooth and nail to garner the additional votes needed to pass the amendment before the discovery of the war’s imminent end.
Prepare to ambush the IMDb page for this movie after you see it, because everyone and their mother appear to have been given a part in this movie. I recognized nearly two dozen actors and actresses in the film, and any review I could give to recognize all of them would be much too long for you to pay any attention to. Because of that, I’d like to focus on a few key players.
Obviously, as the film’s namesake Abraham Lincoln factors here pretty prominently. The version of Lincoln we are given comes from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biopic of the president, Team of Rivals, and from interviews I’ve seen with the author the film is extremely loyal to that interpretation. Aside from looking almost exactly like the man, Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing in this role. I would be incredibly surprised if he does not win the Best Actor Oscar this year, and he will have earned it. If anything, though, I did feel like some of the indulgences of historical accuracy held him back a bit. For one thing, real Lincoln apparently enjoyed telling long, somewhat rambling stories and extended metaphors in conversation, and movie Lincoln is no different. In fact, many of the characters acknowledge this fact throughout the film (One actually throws his hands up in the air and walks out of the room), yet that acknowledgment doesn’t change the fact that the movie’s lengthy run time could have easily been shortened with the omission of at least one or two of Lincoln’s Monologues. As a quick note, I was also a bit thrown off by how feeble Daniel Day-Lewis made his voice sound for the role, it didn’t feel very natural at times but I’m told that choice was also made on the basis of historical accuracy.
David Staithairn was notably strong as Lincoln’s secretary of State, William Seward, and while they were likely the most Hollywood-like aspect of the film I did enjoy the intermittent comic relief of James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson as the three lobbyists/grifters Seward brings on to help scare up votes from undecided congressmen. I also thought that Sally Field did a spectacular job as Mary Todd, Lincoln’s witty but emotionally distraught wife who never quite recovered from the loss of their son, William. The one who really steals the show, however, is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. I admit that Jones is one of those actors who occasionally has a hard time melting into roles like Daniel Day Lewis can, but this role bucks that trend with extreme prejudice. Jones is given an incredibly well-written character and plays it with a huge amount of conviction, creating some of the most satisfying scenes in the entire movie through his verbal duels with the democratic opposition.
…is without a doubt the strongest aspect of the film. Writer Tony Kushner gives us a screenplay with all of the wit of an Aaron Sorkin film yet with about twice the amount of earnesty? and believability. It’s no small feat to make an entertaining movie about historical events that stays true to reality, and the only way Lincoln would have succeeded in making the audience feel as if it was watching something new would have been with this level of writing. I mean, who doesn’t love a good 19th century “Oh, snap” moment?
The Verdict: 8.5/10 Impressive
+ Amazing performances all around
+ Wonderfully written Dialogue
+ Ably balances entertainment with weighty subject matter
– Definitely feels like a lot longer than it had to be
The Bishop Review: 4/5
Fast Film Reviews: 3/5
The Daily Rich: (Positive)
The Bishop Review: 4/5
Movie Fail Reviews: Movie Win!
A Constant Visual Feast: “Near-perfect Historical Drama”