Lincoln - Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Tony Kushner, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lee Pace, Bruce McGill, James Spader, John Hawkes, and David Straithern - Rated PG-13
It’s strange. Abraham Lincoln has been all over Hollywood lately, yet there has not been a real story told about him in decades. I’ve seen his assassination recreated in National Treasure: Book of Secrets and The Conspirator, and he’s even battled the undead in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (a very fun book, by the way, but a disappointingly dull film). Lincoln can be killed over and over and be turned into a superhero, but he can’t be a man. The way Hollywood has avoided tackling the man is a statement on where Abraham Lincoln fits into America’s history. He is not a man, but a legend. It’s hard to even think about Lincoln as a human being, which is what most likely has scared off many filmmakers. Thankfully, Steven Spielberg, Tony Kushner, and Daniel Day-Lewis stepped up to make a film about a man, and it turned out to be a brilliant film on every level.
The main reason that Lincoln not only meets but also exceeds expectations is that it is not a traditional biography of the man. We do not see Lincoln growing up in the log cabin or courting Mary Todd. We don’t even see his youngest son die, which is something that happened in the White House. Lincoln, rather than taking the arguably boring broad view, focuses on Lincoln trying to get the Thirteenth Amendment (the abolition of slavery) passed near the end of the Civil War in order to make sure that the war has at least served a lasting purpose. Believe it or not, the passage of an amendment in the House of Representatives turned out to be far more interesting and entertaining than a life story.
Story and focus is important, but a film like this hinges on a single performance. Once Daniel Day-Lewis was announced to play Lincoln, it seemed perfect. Who else but the lanky, gaunt method actor could portray Abraham Lincoln with any seriousness? (Liam Neeson was attached at one point. A good physical choice, for sure, but I’m not sure how it would have turned out.) As an admitted fanboy of Day-Lewis (I count his performances in The Crucible, Gangs of New York, and There Will Be Blood among the best of all time), I became very excited about this film. When the first picture was released, it was almost creepy how much he looked like the President. Then the preview was released and I finally heard the voice; I was sold.
Abraham Lincoln, according to historical reports, had a high-pitched voice with a Midwest twang that some even described as painful to listen to. He was not a booming, baritone giant as many have imagined him over the years. When I first heard Day-Lewis’s take on the voice, the history buff in me was very pleased. After watching the entire performance, the film critic in me was amazed. It’s no shock that Day-Lewis completely inhabited the character of Lincoln, but I was surprised by how much Lincoln was able to be portrayed as a human, rather than a legend. As Lincoln tells his funny stories and plays with his son, you start to forget you’re watching a portrayal of one of the most beloved political icons in the history of the world. You realize you’re watching a man.
I was afraid when this project was first announced that it would be a film that simply added to the legend. Steven Spielberg is a director I love, but I wasn’t sure he could create a very interesting film about Lincoln. I thought he might sugarcoat the subject or just give a gung-ho “Go America!” movie. While I did leave the theater quite proud of my country, it certainly wasn’t because I just witnessed some propaganda. It was because I had seen a film about one of our greatest politicians fighting for a noble cause. It didn’t hurt that the film turned out to be quite funny, as well.
The humor of Lincoln will most likely be the most surprising part of the viewing experience. The images and previews for the film have sold it as this somber, serious portrait of a man and a mission to end slavery, and it is slightly that, but it also takes backroom politics (trading favors and promising jobs) and turns it into entertaining spectacle. The humor is nearly deceitful, though, as it overshadows the fact that votes for the Amendment are basically purchased. Under normal circumstances, that would create moments of internal struggle, but the topic up for debate is slavery. The question posed (and pretty much answered) both onscreen and off is whether or not the end justifies the means. It seems like the typical answer to that issue in film these days is that individual good is more important than the big picture. Thankfully, Lincoln makes no bones about the fact that ending slavery is the right thing to do, even if a few “wrong” things are done to achieve this.
More importantly, the humor makes Lincoln a feel-good, fun experience. The laughs are well-deserved, too. Lincoln’s stories are always amusing, especially when told with Day-Lewis’s energy. Writer Tony Kushner has crafted a very tight script, dialogue-wise. Lincoln's stories and speeches are great, but the debates on the House floor are equally compelling and entertaining. Sure, most of this can be chalked up to historical record, but if you actually research the words of the time, it is still impressive that Kushner was able to piece all of this together in a coherent and interesting fashion.
Riveting political speeches on paper are one thing, but the words float off meaningless if not for a good performance. I have already stated my awe of Day-Lewis, and the rest of the cast deserves plenty of praise. Tommy Lee Jones is a standout as Thaddeus Stevens. In the previews, we are given a cheesy scene in which he addresses a group of people, “Abraham Lincoln has asked us to work with him to accomplish the death of slavery,” waving his cane with each word to prove his sincerity. Taken out of context, that looks like a scene that belongs in the film I was afraid had been made. He is actually being a bit sarcastic in this moment and it is part of an overall wonderful performance as Stevens represents the character that does have to struggle with the decision to be dishonest for the greater good. Sally Field, David Straithern, Lee Pace, and Bruce McGill round out the heavier parts of the cast, but the list could go on. Lincoln is certainly one of the finest casts of 2012.
The film is tied together with a John Williams score (this is a Spielberg film, after all), and it is the perfect bow to put on top of this great film. Lincoln provides the complete movie package. It is interesting and informative, it's entertaining (surprisingly so), and it showcases some powerhouse performances. If pressed, I could probably give you a couple of things to complain about, but looking back on the film, I can't really single out any real issues. Simply put, Lincoln is my favorite film of the year.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
I want to clarify that bit about being a little deceitful to gain something important. Usually, the lesson of the film is that if you are willing to sell your soul a little bit, then you can become totally evil. Telling one white lie could lead to the downfall of mankind. What a joke. Compromising your values in a small way to gain something greater is an American tradition. It is a good trait to showcase on film? Absolutely not. Is it realistic? Yep. I found it refreshing that Thaddeus Stevens had to swallow his pride and lie to get what he wanted all along. Maybe that isn't heroic by Hollywood standards, but that's the point. Life is all about picking your battles, and in reality, you don't get rewarded for nitpicking.