[Review] – Lincoln

18 Nov

Title: Lincoln
Year: 2012
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writer: Tony Kushner, based on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, Jackie Earle Haley, Lee Pace, Walton Goggins, Jared Harris, David Oyelowo, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson
MPAA Rating: PG-13, an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language
Runtime: 149 min
IMDb Rating: 7.8
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Metacritic: 87

No disrespect to Timur Bekmambetov and the utterly mediocre Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, but we all know that the real 2012 film about honest Abe was the one directed by Steven Spielberg, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the beloved President and featuring no vampires. This was a movie that Mr. Spielberg had been wanting to make for over a decade (at first he had Liam Neeson pegged for the role) and that he took his time assembling the team to make it happen, getting Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kusher (who had co-written Munich for him) to adapt Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s massive book about Lincoln and then assembling a truly stunning ensemble to bring the story of the final four months of such an iconic life to the screen.

I loved that approach, by the way, just focussing on those first few months of 1865, about the shaping and passing of the Thirteenth Amendment that would abolish slavery near the end of the Civil War. It’s amazing because it doesn’t give us that typical structure that we’re usually delivered wrapped up in a bow that would give us the whole of Lincoln’s life or his entire presidency. By making it just about these four months and about this Amendment you could say that the movie is more about that event than it is about the man, yet it is through that event that we learn all we need to know about the man.

It’s obviously a tremendously ambitious approach to take. To make a film about how one thing worked out, to make it about all these meetings between politicians, to make it feel so dense and sprawling even though it’s only about less than four months. To pull that kind of stuff off, to really show how the American people built themselves a mythological figure in their President, you need talent like the one assembled here, especially because it’s not a flashy movie at all, most of the times being just people talking and screaming about ideas.

Then again, you have people like Walton Goggins and Jared Harris and John Hawkes playing some of these parts, giving us expositional dialogue about where we’re at in history, wearing wigs, sometimes on-screen for so little time that you only figure out which great actor was just in front of you when he’s already left the scene. These are all great actors doing their work and doing a damn fine job at it, but really it’s all about the man playing the myth.

That man is Daniel Day-Lewis, recently dubbed “the world’s greatest actor” in Time Magazine cover story, an assessment I doubt many can find any fault in. He really is on a league of his own, acting-wise, and if this portrayal brings him a third Oscar in a few months, like many are predicting it will, I will be damn happy for him. It’s a beautifully effective performance, of a haunted man that’s as withdrawn as he is warm, as quiet as he is determined.

The voice, by the way, which was revealed in the first trailer to the shock of many because of how high-pitched it was, is not only historically-accurate but it makes sense for the man you’ll see on-screen. A man who likes to tell stories, who really does feel the weight of a nation on his shoulders, who doesn’t enjoy the most amazing family life, who isn’t afraid of taking a step back and being patient before acting. There are many great supporting performances, Tommy Lee Jones‘ first and foremost, but it’s thanks to the gravitas of the film’s lead performance that this one finds a way to work as brilliantly as it ultimately does.

Props to Steven Spielberg, who hasn’t made a movie as good and as immersive as this in quite some time, and this coming from someone who really liked both of the ones he gave us last year. He’s handled, with Schindler’s List, Munich, Amistad and even Saving Private Ryan, the historical epic sort of genre, always in different ways and with different, though mostly great, levels of success. Here he gives us a film that’s undeniably a big, sweeping epic but that’s also so tightly focussed on a study of character and politics that it’s a different beast altogether.

We as humans, after all, do enjoy myth-making. Here we get a man who history has made into one of those thoroughly impressive individuals but we see him painted as a human himself, and part of what makes Mr. Day-Lewis’ performance such a masterclass is that he finds a way to marry those two elements of the man and myth and deliver a careful exploration of a politician. At two and a half hours Mr. Spielberg has every single minute he needed to drive that point home, to make him seem like a human being, and he had his usual crew, which includes cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and production designer Rick Carter to help him achieve just that.

I don’t know where Lincoln ranks amongst Mr. Spielberg’s legendary oeuvre, and I’m not one to speculate about it immediately after having seen it, without fully digesting it, with the film so present in my mind. Yet this was an undertaking that came with supreme expectations and Mr. Spielberg met, if not downright surpassed, each and every one of them. All of this without once taking the easy way out, without making it super preachy and full of montages (even the score by John Williams is surprisingly tame here). While you watch this film you will rightfully be gushing about Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance, but don’t forget the genius behind the camera; that he makes it look so easy is only further testament to his skill.

Mr. Spielberg is a director who I’ve loved and I’ve hated from time to time (though mostly loved), the one that so clearly wants to resemble John Ford, that always treads a fine line between over-sentimentality and grand masterpieces. How he handles all the characters and subplots here and delivers this challenging yet ultimately rewarding narrative structure is truly a great thing to behold. He spent over a decade trying to make this film and it really does feel like the kind of movie he’s been destined to make.

Grade: A+

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One Response to “[Review] – Lincoln”

  1. amandalovesmovies January 1, 2013 at 9:11 pm #

    Almost positive Day-Lewis will bring home every major award there is but hoping Tommy Lee Jones gets his due too. Check out my review http://amandalovesmovies.com/2012/11/19/lincoln/

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