I typically don’t do a full review for a movie unless there were several things I liked and didn’t like. I like to share the good and the bad. Lincoln, however, is not such an instance. I have zero major complaints about the film. It’s actually one of the few 2012 films that actually fully lived up to expectations. As of this writing, I believe it is the best movie of 2012. That doesn’t mean it will stay that way when it’s all said and done, but as of right now, Steven Spielberg is on top of the hill yet again. It’s his best movie since Munich in 2005, and since he’s been my favorite director for almost 20 years now, I’m ecstatic to see he’s still capable of this, because it’s been awhile since he’s blown me away.
I’ve had this project on my radar for almost as long as Spielberg has been trying to make it. For years and years, Liam Neeson was attached to play Abraham Lincoln as they toiled away at the script, trying to get it just right. In between, Spielberg made other films, Neeson made other films, and they were never available at the same time with a script everyone was happy with. I don’t think the script was ever bad, from what I understand the difficulty was that trying to figure out which part of Lincoln’s life to portray, and how to craft that into its own movie, with a beginning, middle and end. Eventually, Neeson had to drop out, which was sad at the time, but eventually turned out to be fortuitous. Now, looking back, as good as Neeson is and might have been, how could this role have been played by anyone other than Daniel Day-Lewis? Seriously.
If you’re still on the fence about venturing out to the theater to see a two-and-a-half-hour historical drama, there are a few basic things you should know to keep your expectations in check;
WHAT TO EXPECT: Political intrigue, the behind-the-scenes of how slavery was defeated vis-à-vis the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, and how the Civil War came to a close in relation to the end of slavery. The film deals with the final four months of Lincoln’s life, and is sort of like an 1860’s version of The West Wing. Expect to find out who Lincoln was as a man, as a father and husband, not just who he was as Abraham Lincoln, the Great Man. As Spielberg has repeatedly said, this movie is does not treat Lincoln like a monument. It’s meant to show you who he was and how he did what he did, and it succeeds at exactly that. Expect to learn something, and to be inspired to learn more on your own after you leave the theater.
WHAT NOT TO EXPECT: Don’t expect a thriller dealing with Lincoln’s assassination and how that plot came together. The assassination is dealt with at the end of the movie, but in a way perfectly representative of the story being told. We don’t see John Wilkes Booth, and his name is never uttered. Don’t expect massive, action-packed, bloody Civil War battles. This is not Spielberg’s Civil War companion to Saving Private Ryan. Aside from a brief clip showing a battle at the very beginning of the film, there is no physical action whatsoever. If you’re too dim to accept that and still demand action in every movie you see, you can go watch CGI wolves fighting sparkly vampires in a snowfield in Twilight 4-b. If you enjoy great drama, Lincoln is for you.
Now for the specifics…
WHAT I LIKED
–Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. Obviously. I guess I need to just state the obvious at this point; Daniel Day-Lewis is the greatest actor alive. And it doesn’t even seem to be close. This can barely qualify as acting, though. He IS Abraham Lincoln in this movie. I absolutely love what he did in creating Lincoln’s movements, his voice, his personality and sense of humor, and of course the physical resemblance (thanks to some of the best makeup you’ll ever see) is breathtaking. He’s a mortal lock to be nominated for Best Actor at every upcoming awards show, and it will not surprise me in the least if he wins his third Best Actor Oscar come February. As of this moment, he deserves it.
A lot of people don’t like when actors win awards for playing a real person, and in their protestations often use the ignorant claim that the actor is merely “imitating” that person. Well, DDL is playing a real person here, but there was certainly nothing to imitate, since the guy’s been dead since 1865. You can do all the research you want, but there still isn’t any video or audio to draw upon. No, DDL becomes Abraham Lincoln. The most amazing part about watching this movie is the constant sensation you have that Abraham Lincoln is alive and you’re merely watching a documentary. Very rarely did I think, Wow, Daniel Day-Lewis is incredible. Most of the time I thought, so THAT’S what he was like.
I hesitate to call this Daniel Day-Lewis’ best performance, if only because I believe his work as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood is one of the greatest performances in cinematic history. I believe Lincoln must also qualify in that same vain, but I can’t call it better than what he accomplished in Paul Thomas Anderson‘s 2007 masterpiece.
Note: Be on the lookout for one particular scene where DDL has to spit it out a lengthy, complex explanation on the legality of the Emancipation Proclamation. He makes this speech that must last at least a minute, and it’s all done in a single, long take. Absolutely incredible. I’m sitting there watching it, trying to keep up with what he’s saying because it’s really interesting, when all of a sudden I realized they hadn’t cut and he had done this entire thing in one shot. It’s one of the more impressive pieces of acting you’re gonna see.
–Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. Jones should be a lock for several Best Supporting Actor nominations, as he steals nearly every scene he’s in, using very few words, which is the most impressive thing about it. He gets many of the film’s best comedic moments as well, adding to his character’s likability. After learning a little about Stevens, I’d love to one day see a movie just about him. David Strathairn and Sally Field are also excellent in supporting roles, Strathairn as Lincoln’s Secretary of State (and right-hand man in the fight against slavery) William Seward, and Field of course as Mary Todd Lincoln. I particularly enjoyed the strained marriage scenes where the Lincolns are going at it verbally with just as much intensity as in any modern relationship.
–The rest of the cast. Despite the dominant lead performance of DDL, this really is a fantastic ensemble piece as well. It’s easy to see how important a project this was, because several really good actors took relatively small roles outside what they could be doing just to be a part of it. They include Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln), James Spader, John Hawkes, Jared Harris, Hal Holbrook, the now omnipresent Michael Stuhlbarg, Tim Blake Nelson, Jackie Earle Haley, and the always fantastic Bruce McGill. Most people don’t know all of these actors by name, and if you don’t, you’ll no doubt experience That Guy Recognition Syndrome (the act of recognizing an actor then being temporarily distracted trying to remember where you’ve seen him or her before) several times while watching Lincoln. The show I went to was nearly sold out, and at least 50 people stayed into the credits so they could satisfy their need to see the names of the actors they’d just seen, which was then followed by several, Ohh yeah!‘s.
–Steven Spielberg’s direction. But not for the usual reasons. Spielberg was deliberately and beautifully restrained in his visual presentation. He wisely allows the script and the performances to win the day, and there are few, if any, regular Spielberg touches during the entire film. You don’t feel his presence, and in this instance, that works perfectly. Much like Spielberg, the script, and DDL don’t treat Lincoln like a monument, the director also didn’t attempt to create “The Definitive Abraham Lincoln/Civil War Epic”, as they easily could have. It’s a stroke of genius, actually, to be ambitious by not being ambitious visually, and the film as a whole is some of Spielberg’s best work as a result. Janusz Kaminski‘s cinematography is of course amazing, but it’s not overly showy, there are no epic glory shots, and there are no trick shots or elaborate visual effects shots.
Similarly, John Williams‘ score shows great restraint. The music never overwhelms the scene, nor does it attempt to manipulate the audience during key moments. It’s simply there, right under the surface, greasing the tracks. There is a Lincoln theme (first heard in the movie’s trailer), but it’s not the grand, melodic composition we’re accustomed to hearing from the greatest movie composer ever to live. And again, I think that works to the film’s benefit.
Here is a sample from the score, a track called “The People’s House”, which features the main Lincoln theme:
–The craft. Costumes, art direction, props, and of course the makeup are all A+++. Hopefully, they saved some of those costumes and preserved some of the sets, because they are a wonder to behold. It must have been incredible for the actors to work in those environments every day, because it sure does show up in the performances.
–The feeling I had while watching the movie. As an eager student of history (the Civil War being one of my personal favorite eras to learn about), this is fascinating stuff to watch. It’s a glimpse into a tiny window of American history, yet because it was so vital to what the country would become, you feel the tension and pressure Lincoln and his staff were under in this short period of time. Of course there’s no suspense as to how it all ends, but the film does a great job gripping your attention and making you subconsciously wonder if they’re actually gonna pull this off. It’s brilliant. We know the final score going in, but it’s the HOW THEY GOT THERE that makes it so interesting. The movie doesn’t feel like a history lesson, it isn’t preachy, and it isn’t boring for a second. Instead, I felt like I was actually watching these events unfold as they happened, which is a credit to every single person involved on the film. That said, I think this movie should be shown at schools across the country for years to come whenever the Civil War is being covered.
WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE
-I didn’t like that I couldn’t rewind the movie and immediately watch it again. Totally unfair. Since that wasn’t an option, I will be seeing it a second time in theaters.
-It’s 150 minutes long as is, and I still wanted to see more.
My recommendation? SEE. THIS. MOVIE. And then make sure everyone you know sees it, too. I don’t feel that’s too much to ask.
Lincoln – PG-13 – 149 minutes
IMDb rating: 9/10
BOX OFFICE UPDATE: Thanks to a really strong Thanksgiving holiday weekend, Lincoln is well on its way to grossing over $100 million domestically, which is awesome. The more people who see it, the better, and the big box office helps its awards chances. Nothing makes me happier than seeing good movies performing well in theaters, especially non-summer-blockbuster dramas. Why? Because it increases the chances more good movies get made.