Yes, it's two and a half hours long and yes, there is much more talk than action in Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN, but it is a beautiful and fascinating film that succeeds masterfully in bringing perhaps our most revered President and his era to life.
LINCOLN is biographical, but it is not a biography. Instead of the story of Lincoln's life, it focuses on the end of it; on his efforts to abolish slavery with the passage of the 13th amendment and to bring an end to the Civil War.
Daniel Day Lewis may at first seem an odd choice to play Lincoln, but it's a brilliant performance and his adoption of a thin, reedy voice is in keeping with descriptions of the way Lincoln actually spoke.
As Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field presents us with a truly inspired characterization of the ambitious, clever and perhaps unhinged first lady. When she is on screen, you can't take your eyes off of her.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Republican radical and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens who must decide if he will compromise his fierce and unwavering stand on the issue even slightly if by doing so it helps realize at least part of his cherished goal of equality for the races. Jones' bombastic and often humorous style fits the part like a glove.
The political machinations of the time are also fascinating to watch, giving us a chance to observe Lincoln as the master politician he was in an era when twisting arms and buying votes could be much more blatant than they are today.
It is also somewhat startling to realize how closely the divisiveness of the battle over the abolition of slavery back then parallels the divisiveness of the pro-life, pro-choice debate in our own time.
The film is not without its flaws, however. While Lincoln was certainly a tall man and perhaps ungainly, there are a couple of moments here where Daniel Day Lewis is so ungainly, comparisons to the lurching of the Frankenstein monster don't seem entirely out of place.
Also, Spielberg's tendency for the corny or overly sentimental (think of the "Tell me I'm a good man" speech from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN) is not ignored here. But luckily for the movie goer, he seems to have taken a page from director Alfred Hitchcock's later-in-life playbook. Hitchcock, the Master of Suspense, had a habit of appearing in his films in small cameos. But, toward the end of his career he got them out of the way right at the beginning of the movie so they wouldn't be a distraction to his story.
Spielberg follows that example with LINCOLN, having what can only be characterized as a bit "too enlightened" and somewhat anachronistic conversation between the President and four Union soldiers. Once he gets that scene out of the way, however, he gets right down to business and never looks back.
Don't be surprised if we hear more of LINCOLN at Oscar time. Four Stars.
by Jonathan Mumm firstname.lastname@example.org