Lincoln Directed by Steven Spielberg Written by Tony Kushner Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, Jackie Earle Haley DreamWorks Studios Rated | 150 Minutes Release Date: November 9, 2012
Director Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln focuses on the tumultuous final months of President Abraham Lincoln’s life, the abolishment of slavery, and the Union’s victory in the American Civil War.
Lincoln stars Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood) as the 16th President of the United States, Sally Field (The Amazing Spider-Man) as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (The Dark Knight Rises) as their oldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln.
In the midst of the American Civil War, President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 declared the freedom of slaves in ten rebellious Confederate states. The executive order was seen as a temporary war measure, as it did not actually free any slaves in border states or make the act of slavery illegal.
In order to abolish slavery once and for all, Republicans pushed The Thirteenth Amendment through the Senate. In order for it to be ratified, the amendment had to be passed in the divided House of Representatives – which is really what Spielberg’s film chooses to explore in depth.
We are introduced to a roster of historical figures including Tommy Lee Jones (No Country for Old Men) as Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair, David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) as Secretary of State William Seward, and Jared Harris (Mad Men) as Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant – powerful men who would work together with President Lincoln to abolish slavery and defeat the Confederacy.
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“Forescore and….seven minutes ago, we, your forefathers, were brought forth upon a most excellent adventure, conceived by our new friends: Bill and Ted. These two great gentlemen are dedicated to a proposition, which was true in my time, just as it’s true today. Be excellent to each other….and….PARTY ON, DUDES!” – Abraham Lincoln, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
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Sorry, I had to go watch that YouTube clip from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure to stay awake. I’ll be totally honest with you – I’m bored. I’m struggling with this review – it reads like a text book. Actually, that’s what Lincoln feels like: Professor Spielberg’s 150-minute lecture before the big Civil War Studies final exam on Friday.
Yes, Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing as Abraham Lincoln. Yes, Spielberg’s film is arguably the most authentic biographical drama ever. The all-star ensemble, the makeup and wardrobe, the production design, the cinematography – all great. But, it does little to illuminate the inner-workings of President Lincoln – and fails to be anything more than your standard Spielberg war drama, which is practically its own subgenre at this point.
Lincoln is equal parts War Horse, Schindler’s List, Munich, and Amistad – and while Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a transformative performance, Spielberg has grown so safe and complacent in his craft that the portrayal is wasted on a film that refuses to be compelling or revelatory in any way. This is Spielberg at his most sentimental and symbolic – Lincoln makes War Horse look like Requiem for a Dream.
The emotional high points of the film are altogether absent – because apparently everything is a high point. Every single thing Lincoln says in this movie is treated like the Gettysburg Address. The camera zooms in tight on Lincoln’s cracked, weathered face. Violins rise, the lighting softens. Every. Single. Time.
During the final vote to abolish slavery, Spielberg has us hear every Representative’s vote – a role call of ‘Yeas’ and ‘Nays’ – attempting to give the sequence a sense of suspense and tension when we all already know the outcome. The movie ends on Saturday, April 15, 1865, when Mary bosses her exhausted husband into the carriage that takes them to Ford’s Theatre. Lincoln’s servant gives one last, excruciatingly sappy look at Lincoln as he walks out the door for the last time.
There is no mention of the name John Wilkes Booth. The assassination of President Abraham Lincoln is an afterthought in a film that claims to be about THE FINAL MONTHS OF LINCOLN. It’s like making JFK without including the Zapruder film, for Christ’s sake.
If you’re making a movie about ‘the tumultuous final months of Lincoln’s life,’ you might want to consider SHOWING THE FINAL MOMENTS OF LINCOLN’s LIFE. People will argue “The movie isn’t about that” – but it is. It’s called Lincoln. It isn’t called The Thirteenth Amendment. The film is supposed to be a thoughtful examination of Lincoln’s final days, and yet Spielberg seems afraid to explore the man’s death in any detail.
Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones deserve recognition for their performances – as do all the talented folks who painstakingly recreated 1865 and transformed the actors into their historical counterparts – but I find it frustrating (and infuriating) that Spielberg has lost all his nerve, making one of the safest, most sterile films I’ve seen in years. It’s easy to admire the work that went into Lincoln – but it’s hard to be moved by.