Overall Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3 out of 5 stars.
Brief Synopsis: For the fan of Steven Spielberg's sprawling epics, Daniel Day-Lewis takes us through the last four months of Lincoln's life, focusing primarily on the vote for the 13th Amendment. The dialog was the stand-out star of the film, though it was punctuated throughout by Spielberg's love for the melodramatic and moving. Knock-out performances were given by the approximately one million Hollywood actors involved in the project, though they weren't as breathtaking as all the reviews claimed. The music, composed by John Williams (of course), was the runner-up star of the film, managing an unassuming ethereal backdrop and a poignant plot arc of its own. Overall, I was left a little flat if the intent was to move and inspire me, as the majority of Spielberg's work strives for; however, I loved seeing Lincoln through the eyes of his Cabinet, and the humanizing effect the story had on all of these larger-than-life characters.
The Oscar buzz surrounding Day-Lewis's performance was inescapable for months. I thought he did a wonderful job of capturing the Common Man in Lincoln, affecting a gentle Southern drawl and an intense love affair with storytelling and tangential speaking. A huge portion of this film, in fact, is listening to Lincoln tell a story, be it an inspirational speech or a simple tale or joke he finds particularly amusing. He was an entirely relatable character, imbued with the likability history remembers him for. However, I got absolutely no sense of Lincoln's Larger Than Life persona for which he is also primarily known. The way he filled a room, towering over everyone else; a commanding presence without ever being intimidating. Several times the 'show don't tell' rule was broken by reminders of Lincoln's height -- 6'4" -- in the dialog, without any visible sense of it aside from once, when he entered a room with a low ceiling and had to walk nearly bowed in half. The resulting performance from Day-Lewis then seemed wearied, nearly fragile, frustrated and submissive. I think one facet of Lincoln's character was very truly portrayed, but everything else fell by the wayside, and he was frankly overshadowed by a supporting cast that was stand-out. Additionally, Day-Lewis's accent slipped several times, which might have only been noticeable to my trained ears, but was a little distracting nonetheless.
Now, imagine my surprise as star after star showed up on screen. I'd heard barely anything aside from Day-Lewis, though I knew Sally Field played Mary, and Tommy Lee Jones was also in there somewhere. I was surprised and delighted to see Lee Pace, who seems to have discovered a new niche as a villain these days (that's always going to be disorienting, as it's so hard for me not to see the Piemaker in those big puppy eyes). Playing Fernando Wood, one of the loudest opposers of the 13th Ammendment, gave him the grand majority of the movie's speeches. Tommy Lee Jones played Thaddeus Stevens, for the other side of the debate, and provided a lot of the movie's humor. Both men filled their roles very well. James Spader portrayed W.N. Bilbo, and was possibly the second-best performance in the entire film. He infused so much life into the character that I never thought, "I'm watching James Spader." I was fully engrossed in his flawed and persistent character, rooting for him and laughing at him in equal turns. Joseph Gordon-Levitt played Robert, Lincoln's oldest son, whose arc was almost wholly independent from the main plot, but was very well acted (as I've come to expect from him). Gulliver McGrath was the boy who played Lincoln's youngest son, Tad, and that kid was the heart and soul of this film. Not in the way you might assume -- nothing about his character was cutesy. He was a masterful little actor, and showed us Lincoln through a child's eyes. The real knock-out performance for me, however, came from Sally Field, who is astounding in anything she does. Mary was multifaceted and tortured, prone to flights of emotion, but not treated in the derogatory fashion history prefers: as the woman who spent hand over fist to decorate the White House, and tortured Lincoln to the point that he threatened to throw her in an asylum. These things were touched upon, naturally, but never over-emphasized. We were given a strong woman who was pushed to the limits of what she could endure, a complicated relationship with her husband, and a gut-wrenching past that left her tattered. The only complaint I have is in yet another instance of Spielberg's sloppy tell-don't-show style, giving us a conversation near the close of the film where Mary all but broke the fourth wall describing how unkindly history would remember her. Field's performance was more than enough to stand on its own in showing the audience how much more there was to Mrs. Lincoln.
As I mentioned at the outset, the best part of this film for me, personally, was the dialog. The film is based off a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin, entitled "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln". If she took the same care with dialog that screenwriter Tony Kushner did, then I must pick up this book immediately. This part of the review is highly subjective, since I am an unabashed lover of big and complicated words. I was treated to phrases (and insults) I've never heard before, and everything was handled in the true flavor of that era. It makes me sad whenever I think of how many beautiful words have fallen into disuse; our modern way of speaking so often feels stripped of all the delicacy and poetical flavor language should rejoice in. While we're busy chopping words down into the shortest possible combination of syllables we can manage, the men and women in this film spoke with such passion, such intensity, such grace and sharpness, it was hard not being completely swept away. Language, I'd go so far to say, was its own character in this movie. It fought for itself, it laughed at itself, it railed against oppression and it rejoiced in elegance and equality. It was, in a word, beautiful.
The plot itself was handled very well. It touched heavily on the Civil War, but its primary focus was on the Senate and the passing of the 13th Amendment. It wasn't so much a biopic of Lincoln as it was a story about all the men and women that helped get that amendment passed. We saw little of the White House or the battlefield, though we were treated to glimpses of General Grant. The denouement, particularly, was well done, as they had some story to fill in between the passing of the amendment and Lincoln's death. I was concerned when the rising action hit a climax in the Senate with so much time to go, and the following scene was so quiet it almost seemed to flounder. But it carried itself beautifully, giving us the most insightful peeks at Lincoln's character until the movie closed just after he was pronounced dead. We didn't see anything at all inside the theater, we were never even given a glimpse of John Wilkes Booth, and yet we never really needed to. Again, I have to complain about Spielberg's heavy-handedness and his love affair with melodrama, as our last scene with Lincoln has him rushing out of a meeting so he won't be late to the theater, and yet he takes time to make more than a few foreshadowing remarks about, "I guess it's time to go, though I'd much rather stay." Followed by people looking after his declining silhouette, as if knowing somehow they'll never see the man again. It's unnecessary, and rather than having the intended effect of poignancy, it robs the movie of something vital and reminds the audience that we are just that. An audience, when we should be players inside the film. If you like Spielberg, you'll like this movie. Just be prepared for all his usual tricks.
Another complaint I have is that the DVD menus were far more beautiful than the film itself. The menus are gorgeous. I took the time to click on every page to see each one. The film, on the other hand, was primarily shot in smoky hues, giving off the feeling of something clouded, dingy, and shrouded. I wanted something really beautiful taking me into the 19th century and all its glories; I didn't get it. One can argue that what I got was a more truthful peek at what the Civil War did to the country and the national mood, but the movie felt severely lacking in that regard. There was one truly beautiful shot in the entire film, just after the amendment was adopted and celebration erupted in the streets. Lincoln opened a window in the White House, letting the sounds pour in, and Tad joined him at his side while the curtains gently curled around their silhouettes. It was the most poignant moment of the film, a juxtaposition of celebration and quiet reverence. The rest of the movie seemed unnecessarily dark, drab, disconnected, distant. Lots of long pans and silhouettes. Lots of glowers, and grimaces. I wasn't swept away, and it's a shame as the costume department did well, the set direction did well, the makeup artists did well. I think Spielberg has gotten lazy with his big budget, and he doesn't push the envelope. It could have been so much more.
Overall, I did like the movie. I wanted to love it, but you win some and you lose some. I think it's worth seeing for the dialog alone, and the wonderful performances given by Field, Spader, and Day-Lewis.
This entry was originally posted at http://ladyoflorien.dreamwidth.org/54398