It’s hard to argue that Steven Spielberg is the directing legend he once was. Back in the 20th century, he gave us films that will stand forever as classics, from Indiana Jones to Jaws to ET to Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan.
But post-2000, what do we have? AI, The Terminal, War of the Worlds, Crystal Skull, War Horse. I may be cherry picking past films I did like such as Minority Report, Munich and Catch Me if You Can, but even those aren’t quite of the same caliber as his true classics.
So what is Lincoln, then? Caught somewhere in the middle. It’s a decent film that draws out astonishing performances from the actors involved. It tells a part of our history we too often forget, and has ramifications for today’s political landscape as well.
Based on the hugely popular Lincoln biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin, it focuses not on Lincoln’s rise to power, bloody battles of the Civil War, or his time spent hunting vampires, but rather his efforts in passing one of the most significant pieces of legislation in our history, the thirteenth amendment to ban slavery nationwide.
As such, the focus of the two and a half hour film is largely on backroom deals and harshly, or kindly, worded threats. Lincoln, a Republican, had to do an incredible amount of work to convince his fellow party members in the House to hold the line, but the bill would not pass without Democratic support. He and his allies go on a quest to hunt down twenty odd Democratic votes they need to pass the law, and each case is a different kind of politics, be it an emotional appeal or a manipulative forced play.
The width and breadth of this cast is simply incredible. We all knew going that Daniel Day Lewis and Sally Field were the titular pair of Abe and Mary Todd, but as the film unfolds, you will be spotting a new actor you recognize. There’s Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s oldest son Robert, and the list goes on. James Spader, Jackie Earl Haley, John Hawkes, Jared Harris, Walton Goggins, Lee Pace. There’s so much talent on display here, it’s staggering.
But no one shines more than the man himself, Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln. There seems to be no role he can’t make his own, and though many were questioning his high pitched and almost whiney Lincoln voice, historical research backs up that decision. And you don’t just see the weight of the nation on his shoulders, you can feel it in every line he delivers. Similarly great performances come from the borderline psychotic Mary Todd with Sally Field painting a less-than-rosy picture of the famed first lady. Tommy Lee Jones also does a phenomenal job here, as he seems to have woken up from a slumber that encompasses most of his films in the last decade.
As good as these performances are, the film itself struggles a bit. The movie opens with a crawl, and if you’re cozy enough in your theater seat, it’s entirely possible that you may doze off near the beginning. It takes a solid hour for you to start to get a feel for the pace and content of the film. Once you realize that you won’t be seeing any epic Civil War battles, and the fight in the House starts to heat up, you’ll enjoy it more. But still, for a 150+ minute film, it can definitely drag at times and feels like there’s some fat that could have been trimmed.
It’s a good film with great performances, but I hesitate to say that “Spielberg’s back!” as I don’t think this is up to par with some of his past hits. That said, it’s his best effort in a long while, and he tells a story that everyone in the US or elsewhere should witness.
4 out of 5 stars