When you mention the names Steven Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis or Abraham Lincoln people are going to be intrigued. When you combine all three you get something damned exciting. And it should be! There’s a ton of potential there for a great biopic, and there’s an equal amount of ways to mess it up. Thankfully, they didn’t mess it up.
Rather than be a real biopic, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner decide to focus on the last couple months of Lincoln’s life. In fact, this could probably be considered a movie about ending the Civil War and passing the 13th Amendment rather than about Lincoln.
It works wonderfully because we get to see Lincoln the politician. It’s a Lincoln we rarely see. Well, other than that vampire hunting one, I suppose. But we see Lincoln sending his hired men to go procure him votes, we see him playing games and twisting words, promising people things and finding a way to get his way.
It’s brilliantly fascinating to watch. And then there’s the fact that all the supporting players are extremely talented actors and it takes it up a notch. They’re all on their game and it shows. When the film is at it’s best it’s like watching a tense chess match between Lincoln and his supporters and those against the 13th Amendment. It’s especially amazing when you can be wondering “how is this thing going to work? How will they do this!?” when you already know the results.
And yes, the cast is packed with amazing performances. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens stands out in the supporting group, along with Sally Field as Mary Todd, David Straithairn as the Secretary of State and every one else. Literally. Everyone is good in this movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris and the rest.
Daniel Day-Lewis stands above them all, however. As expected, he’s brilliant as Lincoln. He’s mesmerizing and when he’s on the screen you won’t take your eyes off him. Other than that animatronic at Disneyland this is probably the closest thing you’ll see to the real Lincoln for some time.
However, there’s a weird almost-paradox with this movie. It’s a biopic and they have a fantastic performance from Day-Lewis, but it doesn’t feel as utilized as it could be. This is because the movie is largely about the 13th Amendment, sure. So focus more on Lincoln, right? They try that with a bunch of side stories about his family. Mary Todd is grieving their dead son, Rob Lincoln wants to enlist in the army but his parents don’t want him to, etc etc. All that stuff comes across as… boring. Despite the good acting, you kind of want to get back to watching the political games behind the 13th Amendment.
And that’s how you’re stuck with a fantastic biopic-worthy performance in a movie that’s about the political process. It seems wasted. This doesn’t mean Lincoln is a bad movie, it’s a great one. It just feels like Day-Lewis’ performance could have had more attention. However, the movie probably would have been worse off for it. So there’s the odd performance paradox.
The movie is slower paced. There’s little of the bloody battles shown. Rather, we see the aftermath of the most deadly war in American history. We see the toll it takes on people, especially Lincoln, rather than what’s happening. If you’re expecting a thrilling romp through history (Saving Private Ryan), you’ll be disappointed. Essentially, the movie is a bunch of monologues and speeches strung together. It, honestly, should be a History Channel documentary but it becomes fascinating and even entertaining with Spielberg’s direction. He keeps it moving the majority of the time so it doesn’t drag too often (until you hit those boring family bits, that is).
But when it’s all over you have a greater admiration for Lincoln. And that’s the goal of the movie , really. It succeeds. I spent a great deal afterward thinking about how wonderfully hard he worked for that Amendment — how hard he wanted it. And it makes you ponder the current political climate and what politicians could be doing better. It’s absolutely magnificent the effect it has.
Overall, Lincoln is quite the treat for history buffs and political junkies. Especially since they went through painstaking detail to bring the world of Lincoln to life. For instance, the clocks he listens to in the movie is the same ticking Lincoln actually heard! It’s slower paced, but it’s a fascinating look into the passing of the 13th Amendment and the process of American politics that every American should see.