What It's About
Focusing on the contentious battle to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, "Lincoln" is a gutsy achievement. Anchored by Daniel Day-Lewis' virtuoso performance, this is an unvarnished look at how America moved forward, the Civil War ended, and our 16th president cemented his lofty place in history.
Big brains converse and fiery oratory produces a riveting behind-the-scenes drama, recalling the musical "1776" and its vibrant flesh-and-blood appeal. The backroom wheeling-and-dealing dominates, rather than battlefield skirmishes, and the harsh consequences of a bruised, divided nation are widespread. A weary Lincoln deals with enormous troubles, fighting for what's right like a warrior.
With laser-like focus, director Steven Spielberg ("Saving Private Ryan") shrewdly frames the era's political mindset through an epic clash of mind games -- a stunning display of true grit and single-minded determination by Honest Abe, who must triumph over the bickering.
With keen insight and well-placed humor, screenwriter Tony Kushner ("Angels in America") takes the starch out of scholarly perceptions, thus reveals our folksy plain-spoken president as even more profound. His source is historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln."
Two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis ("My Left Foot") might be headed for a third, for his astonishing performance is one for the ages. He not only looks like Lincoln, with his sunken cheeks, unruly hair and hunched shoulders, but this gifted actor has created a measured cadence and raised his vocal tone -- disappearing completely into the character. So immersed is he as the prairie lawyer-turned-grand statesman, you forget you are watching a performance -- it's that organic.
A who's who of outstanding character actors fills Congress and power broker roles, with crafty turns by Tommy Lee Jones as the irascible Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn as a level-headed Secretary of State William Seward, Hal Holbrook as a cagey politician, and James Spader as a slick lobbyist.
As Mary Todd, miscast Sally Field overacts and is uneven as Lincoln's unstable wife still grieving over her son Willie's death, and still blaming Abe for the loss in private, while zealously defending her husband's honor in public. Two-time Oscar winner Field ("Norma Rae") has strong moments, yet there is a disingenuous feeling about this portrait.
Alas, Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("The Dark Knight Rises") has scant screen time as Lincoln's eldest son Robert, who wants to enlist despite his parents' protests.
Those who enjoy seeing the sausage made will marvel at the jagged details regarding our Democratic process. The filmmakers have managed to make a great man very human without losing any of his luster -- a profile in courage sans the full biography.
Kushner, a master craftsman at dialogue, reaches out with thoughtful words, avoiding preachiness. Instead of his usual sentimental excesses, Spielberg pulls back here -- it's his most restrained work in a long time. He emphasizes major moments and quiet, gentle ones with his customary skill.
OK, listening to a bunch of blowhard politicians who love the sound of their voice might not seem interesting, but this isn't a stuffy textbook lesson. "Lincoln" is not only an absorbing look at a rocky time in U.S. history but it also resonates in today's America.
Janusz Kaminski's camera work is exceptional, and John Williams' score doesn't overpower.
What Doesn't Work
Yes, it is talky and rather long at 2 1/2 hours -- no denying that, nor is it perfect. Yet, their gamble to pinpoint the last four months of Lincoln's presidency pays off with a savvy yet moving film. Although the assassination happens off-screen, and that seems an odd choice.
Nevertheless, Lincoln was the absolute right man for his time, and the movie assures his impact is felt in the 21st century.
Four stars out of four
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader
Rated: PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language