There is perhaps no U.S. president more beloved than the 16th man to hold the office, Abraham Lincoln. He got the country through a very difficult time in its history, when brother fought brother and slavery still festered in many states throughout the nation. While many like to think that he was solely the one responsible for accomplishing the great things he did (guiding the country through The Civil War, freeing the slaves), there were in fact several people who helped support the president in his endeavors. Now one of our country’s greatest filmmakers, three-time Academy Award winner Steven Spielberg, has brought together an extraordinary group of actors to tell the story of how the president and his supporters accomplished the amazing deeds that changed this country forever.
Starting in late 1864, we find the country already deeply immersed in The Civil War. Victory for The Union seems almost certain at this point, but President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) seems more preoccupied with the issue of slavery, which he has attempted to abolish in the form of a 13th amendment to the Constitution, but unfortunately it has failed to pass the House due to strong opposition from the Democrats. However, with an election having recently been held, not only has Lincoln won his second term, but there has also been a reorganization of the House. The Republicans have a majority, though not the two-thirds majority they would need to pass the amendment, so it’s clear that they will have to sway the votes of some of the opposition.
Assisting the president in this venture are Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, William Seward (David Strathairn), the Secretary of State that voices concern when the amendment seems to be getting in the way of peace with the Confederates, and W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), one of the men helping to gain Democratic votes. As the war continues into its last few months, a peace delegation is sent from the South that threatens to derail everything Lincoln and his supporters have been working for. With only a few days left to do the seemingly-impossible, they must strive to collect the necessary votes or else risk losing the amendment forever.
“Lincoln” is a film that succeeds purely based on the level of its performances. It’s been known for some time just how great an actor Daniel Day-Lewis is. He’s already won two Best Actor Oscars for “My Left Foot” and “There Will Be Blood,” and now he adds another phenomenal performance to his credits. President Lincoln has been portrayed multiple times before, but Day-Lewis manages to bring a new dimension to the man that has been praised by Americans throughout history.
Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a man of the people, someone who loves to tell stories, but also someone who obviously has a bleeding heart for the suffering going on throughout the country due to the war and oppression of slaves. While fear of freedom for African-Americans hinders others from taking action, Lincoln sees it as a duty to make sure they have this same basic right that all others enjoy. Day Lewis’ portrayal of this man is spellbinding and could very well see him garner his third Best Actor Oscar, which would be well-deserved.
There are also outstanding performances to be found from Oscar winners Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field. Jones’ portrayal of Stevens is fascinating, mixing his desire to see equality among races with humor. There are times during the House sessions that he comes across as a bit of an insult comic, calling his opponents all kinds of things while trying to get his own points across. However, his desire is genuine, which is shown by the sacrifices he makes to see the passage of the amendment. Field portrays Mary Todd and only has a few scenes in the film, but she makes great use of them, pouring her heart and soul into every line, particularly when she’s speaking privately with her husband.
Now, unfortunately, we must turn to the more troubling aspects of the film. “Lincoln” does indeed tell a very important story from this nation’s history, but the way that it’s told is rather dry. In fact, if it weren’t for the amazing performances from the entire cast, this would be nothing more than an ordinary, run-of-the-mill story about Lincoln. It’s hard to find where the fault lies exactly, but I think it mostly comes from Tony Kushner’s screenplay, which, while marvelously written, had a few issues of its own.
I mentioned earlier that Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a storyteller, which is actually something that becomes a bit of a running joke throughout the film as he tends to randomly tell one from time to time, but this running joke also becomes somewhat unintentionally-extended as the screenplay also seemed to call for Lincoln to give an impassioned speech in every other scene. This kind of leads to a “there he goes again” moment whenever this would happen.
This being a story of events where the outcome is already known makes this a film that is going to be all in the telling. Think about “Valkyrie,” the film about an attempt on Hitler’s life, where we know Hitler is not going to be killed, but where the telling of the plot was fascinating. We know the 13th amendment is going to pass, but how did that come about? It’s all going to be in the dramatization of how the support was rallied and how those nay votes were swayed to the Republicans’ side, and that is where the film comes off as a rather dry telling of the events.
Luckily, this is a film where the performances outweigh the telling of the story by a considerable margin. Day-Lewis, Jones, Field, Strathairn, and everyone else lift the film up and make it worth seeing for their performances alone. You may not remember much else from the two and a half hours, which is another unfortunate drawback, but you will remember the powerful portrayals of these characters in a film that is beautifully shot and directed. It would have been nice to have a more memorable film, but it is doubtful you will see better performances this year. 3/4 stars.
Expands nationwide starting tomorrow.
Now Playing: Cloud Atlas, Paranormal Activity 4, Argo, Taken 2, V/H/S, Looper, Hotel Transylvania, The Master