Grade: 85 (A-)
Steven Spielberg has promised an Abraham Lincoln movie for so long that it’s almost a wonder the film doesn’t collapse under the weight of anticipation and prestige. Then again, Spielberg’s whole career has been built on wonder: the wonder of friendly aliens, families reconnected, the resilience of the human spirit, and men doing what’s right under extraordinary circumstances. Lincoln is another film in this vein, one about a great but flawed man, his humanity beneath his legacy, and the team of men who banded with him to fight for human rights.
January 1865: Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is at the tail-end of the American Civil War, but things aren’t getting any easier. Lincoln fights for the 13th Amendment, one that would end slavery throughout the United States. He is met with fierce opposition both within his party and outside of it. Some fight to preserve slavery. Others believe that peace can be achieved with the Confederacy without it. Lincoln bands with fierce Republican radical Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), his Secretary of State William Seward (David Straithairn), and others to cajole, beg, or bribe other representatives to pass the amendment, all while dealing with the weight of war, his son Robert’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) desire to join the Union’s military, the mental instability of his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field), and the specter of his son Willie’s death.
With Lincoln, Spielberg assembles a murderer’s row of great thespians for an all-star look at history; what might have been distracting in another director’s hands works perfectly here, as it brings weight even to the smallest of parts (Michael Stuhlbarg’s hesitant representative, Jackie Earle Haley as the Vice President of the Confederacy). Spielberg directs a number of memorable performances: Jones as a man whose prickly nature obscures his goodness, to Gordon-Levitt as a young man trying to escape his father’s shadow and his mother’s instability, to Straithairn as the president’s most trusted friend, James Spader as a shady but shrewd and most trusted lobbyist, and Field as the tragically fragile Mary Todd. Day-Lewis, of course, inhabits the character of Abraham Lincoln like no other man could have, striking a delicate balance between larger-than-life icon of his time and the flawed, desperate man beneath the righteous legend.
Of course, the film wouldn’t work if it were just a bunch of talented actors playing historical figures (too many prestige films think the effort stops here). Screenwriter/playwright Tony Kushner (in his second collaboration with Spielberg after Munich) gives one of the few truly great insights into the political process: the backroom deals, the stakes for everyone involved, the furious opposition, and the all-too-human men amidst a flawed but complex and ultimately worthwhile system. Spielberg, perhaps the most naturally gifted storyteller to ever pick up a camera, turns what could have been a stagey, talky film into a rich cinematic experience reminiscent of his previous work on Schindler’s List, his use of chiaroscuro lighting and camera movement bringing further dimension to the story. The film has some pacing issues at times, to be sure, but it hardly matters when it’s so alive. This isn’t just a film of historical figures spewing history sound bites at each other, but a tale of flawed men willing to do anything, even break the law, in order to do what’s right.
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