Abraham Lincoln was a hell of a president, and this year he’s being treated as such. In 2012 alone he’s had two movies dedicated to his life. The first, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” was a mostly fictional account (I think) about the president’s tireless campaign against undead bloodsuckers. The second, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (opening wide this week), takes a more factual approach to his life, focusing on the last four months of his presidency and his attempts to get the thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ratified. As far as defining moments in the American character go, few are as important as this.
But is this biographical tale, anchored by a lead performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, a thrilling dip into the past or a really long History Channel special? Let’s find out.
PRO: Daniel Day-Lewis
Yes, his Lincoln voice is sort of weird, but considering the amount of research that went into this thing, it’s probably as close an approximation as we’re likely to ever hear. Once you get over Day-Lewis’ reedy line delivery, you can’t help but be impressed. Day-Lewis embodies Lincoln wholly — his physicality (he has a curved spine and hunched-over stance like Joaquin Phoenix in “The Master”), his oratory tics and his clear-eyed morality (which sometimes leads him down some surprisingly muddy avenues). His Lincoln is not a saint; he’s a complicated, occasionally unlikable man. But the entire time you’re watching him you get the sensation that this is the closest you’ll ever come to seeing Lincoln walking around a room and talking to people… outside of Walt Disney World’s Hall of Presidents, that is.
CON: The Structure
By setting the film in the last four months of Lincoln’s second term and focusing largely on the legislative hurdles the president faced instead of the Civil War conflicts that were going on at the time, the movie’s scope constricts. So while the end result might be more identifiably human, it lacks the scope and scale that you would expect from Steven Spielberg making an Abraham Lincoln movie.
PRO: Sally Field
While the majority of the movie is white guys bickering inside of candlelit rooms, there is at least one female performer who totally dominates, and that is Sally Field, playing Mary Todd Lincoln. She is absolutely a force of nature in this movie and able to gamely hold her own when she goes up against Daniel Day-Lewis (which is really saying something). She is very deserving of an Academy Award nomination for her contribution, and are thrilled that she’s had this kind of comeback after starring in one of the year’s biggest, most abysmal movies (“Amazing Spider-Man”) and barely uttering a word.
CON: It’s Pretty Long And Boring
The film begins with an action sequence (sort of) — it’s a recounting of an all-black Union squad getting revenge on some Confederate soldiers. But with a little more virtuosic pep from Spielberg (and the freedom of an R-rating), it could have been just like the explosive openings of “Saving Private Ryan” or “Munich” (written, too, by “Lincoln’s” Tony Kushner). Instead the scene feels phoned in, and it’s interrupted by endless dialogue (which, come to think of it, pretty much sets the tone for the entire movie). The fact that Spielberg doesn’t, even once, unleash his considerable visual dazzle for a Civil War battle sequence or set something during the celebratory outpouring that accompanied the end of the war and the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment (when Abe and Mary were making their way to Ford’s Theater on that fateful night they were literally passing through hordes of people choking the street in celebration), is either an incredible act of restraint or a severe oversight. At two-and-a-half hours, it could have used a little more zip.
PRO: The Supporting Cast
This being a Steven Spielberg movie about Lincoln, the director filled out the supporting roles with a boggling amount of big-time movie stars and sterling character actors. In short order, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lee Pace, David Strathaim, Jackie Earl Haley, Bruce McGill, Walton Goggins, Gloria Reuben, Jared Harris, Hal Holbrook, Julie White and Jeremy Strong all appear. As far as MVPs go, Tommy Lee Jones, as leading abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens is, surprisingly, just as much the emotional center of this movie as Lincoln is (his concluding scene chokes you up more than Abe’s). Then there’s the irresistible trifecta of John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson and James Spader (!), who play a trio of unscrupulous political operatives. The three add much-needed color, humor and energy to the middle section of the movie. Spader, in particular, gives a rousing performance that will most likely get sadly overlooked come awards season.
PRO: The Beards
They really are spectacular. There are teams of hipsters in Brooklyn who will soon have their upturned mustaches vindicated.
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