At last, Steven Spielberg’s long-promised Abraham Lincoln biopic finally arrives. The long awaited matchup of two gigantic personas seemed impossible to live up to: the life of Lincoln, arguably the most famous and beloved of all American presidents, depicted by Spielberg, the most successful filmmaker of all time. The end result is mostly great, even spellbinding at times, but it’s also as overstuffed as it is missing key biographical ingredients.
Lincoln puts us at the end of the President’s life, as we witness his struggle to get the 13th Amendment passed, in order for African-Americans to live in freedom following the end of the Civil War and into the Reconstruction period. Many historical points are touched upon, such as the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, the surrender at Appomattox, the sad, grisly aftermath of the war and its wounded soldiers and the need for slavery to be abolished once and for all.
One of the film’s considerable strengths is how fully it immerses the audience into this world, as the settings, clothing and manner of speech transports us fully into the 19th century. Yet, the film’s dense authenticity is also something of a drawback. The screenplay was written by Tony Kushner, the brilliant playwright of Angels in America and Munich, Spielberg’s last great film. The dialogue is full of quotable, stirring lines and tells the story adequately but doesn’t entirely engage. Most of this feels like a filmed stage play, as the dialogue dominates the action and over-explains the story (even Lincoln’s assassination is oddly kept off camera).
There’s also the problem of how inaccessible this will be to those not immediately familiar with this period of history, as only one scene provides title cards to explain who we’re looking at and why they’re important. In a film with a cast of characters this vast, more background can only help. Also, skipping Lincoln’s younger, log cabin years makes the film shorter but denies the audience a greater connection to the man. Most of the film takes place indoors and it isn’t until the last half, with the rush to pass the 13th Amendment, that it finally gathers momentum.
Daniel Day Lewis’ performance as Lincoln is the film’s greatest, most towering success. This is neither an overly glamorized portrayal, nor a dark bit of revisionism. Playing him as a gentle, good humored, soft spoken and driven man of the people, Day Lewis creates a fascinating portrait that isn’t showy or demonstrative but still commands your attention every time he’s on screen.
After a barely awake turn in last summer’s Men in Black 3, Tommy Lee Jones comes roaring back as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. It’s his best performance in years–ferocious, scene stealing and tremendously enjoyable. The massive supporting cast is mostly solid, though Joseph Gordon-Levitt is distractingly modern as Lincoln’s eldest son and Gloria Reuben, as a former slave who is at the center of many scenes, is playing more of a symbol than a fully developed character.
Spielberg fills many scenes with vast spaces, dozens of extras and intriguing background details. But he relies too much on the “Spielbergian Glow,” his oft-criticized tendency to film characters bathed in a heavenly light.
Longtime fans will recognize his directorial trademarks, like a scene of Lincoln and his youngest sitting on a rocking chair, silhouetted by sunlight, replicating the most famous image from The Color Purple. This may not be the definitive movie on the subject, but Day Lewis’ astounding take on Honest Abe might be the one in which all others are measured.
★ ★ ★
Rated PG-13 / 149 Min.