Abraham Lincoln is one of the most famous presidents in the history of the United States and Steven Spielberg tackles his life in the most powerful way possible. The film captures the final four months of Lincoln’s life as he struggles to end the war and pass the 13th amendment Daniel Day-Lewis gives an Oscar calibre performance as the president with one of the largest ensemble casts ever behind him. Tommy Lee-Jones, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn and John Hawkes are just some of the many strong supporting actors that show up in this film. Watch the trailer below and then read my review.
This movie will certainly be a major contender at the Oscars this year but it is not for everyone. Besides for one battle scene at the beginning, this is a movie composed entirely of people talking. I felt like I was watching a play, with the actors only saying what was required and Day-Lewis’s superb acting carrying the rest. In this way Lincoln is very unique, but there is no better way of portraying such an important man and time than through the speeches given. Lincoln faces conflict that will change history, whether to pass the amendment and abolish slavery or allow slavery to continue in exchange for surrender from the south. And everyone comes to him with their own reasons why he should choose one or the other. That itself is just an interesting conflict as the war itself and watching Lincoln conquer his problems is very entertaining.
The film puts great emphasis on the decision and would have been perfect if it would have ended at that. But a major drawback of the film is the ending and the portrayal of the murder at the theatre. Everyone knows that Lincoln gets shot in April 1865 but there was a scene where Lincoln walks away into the shadows just before that would have been a better final scene. Instead Spielberg includes a scene showing people’s reactions to the murder and a really showing of the corpse on his bed that takes all of Lincoln’s power that he had before. The final scene is Lincoln giving another huge speech which, although powerful, instead seems to distracts from the odd corpse scene from before. But even though the film has a disappointing ending, the first 2 hours and 15 minutes are spectacular.
The film is carried by the acting, but the production values are great too. There are countless tracking shots and creative uses of mirrors and lighting that set the scene and time. This is the biggest difference between Lincoln and stage productions, the sets and shots that can only be achieved on-screen. The scenes on the battlefield are emotional, the scenes in the house of representatives are powerful and the ones in the White House are exciting. The production team (especially the costume team) really went above and beyond to recreate 1865 and it greatly adds to the film.
More than anything however, the cast carries this film and it is amazing to see all the people Spielberg got to take on small, supporting roles. The strongest supporting performances (and the ones worthy of Oscars) come from Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. Stevens is a hard-nosed Republican leader who wants more than anything to get the 13th amendment passed, set he faces just as much pressure from the Democrats as Lincoln. Jones plays the role perfectly, with some powerful speeches (and insults) while also using quick wit to get his points across. It is a great performance that will get him an Oscar nomination in the wide open Best Supporting Actor category. Field plays Mary equally powerful. A background story involves their son, Robert, and his insistence on enrolling in the army and which Mary strongly opposes. She is the only person who can change Lincoln’s mind and Field plays that important role perfectly. Being a political movie, she is the only woman with a major role, but Field finds a way to fit in with all of the powerful men that surround her, especially in a very entertaining scene when she greats Stevens and other leaders at a dinner party. Here we see Field use her full acting skills to stand up to the men, and it’s just one of the many scenes that will get her nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
Everyone else plays their roles well, but do not get enough screen time for an Oscar nomination. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays the role of Robert Lincoln just as well as he has in his many other movies this year. His storyline where he debates with his parents over whether if he should enlist or not is both entertaining and emotional. James Spader, John Hawkes and Jackie Haley play three guys tasked with getting Democrats to support the amendment and are in most of the lighter scenes, especially Spader who has many physical comedy scenes. Jarred Harris only has two scenes as Ulysses S. Grant but still plays just as well as he does on Mad Men. David Strathairn plays William Seward, the secretary of defence and the man who Lincoln trusts more than anyone. Strathairn plays the part well and has some great scenes trying to make sure Lincoln understands all of the angles to consider. Hal Holbrook even appears as a private citizen, Preston Blair, who Lincoln confines with and uses to start truce negotiations with the confederates. He also has some great scenes and further adds to the lineup of strong actors here. All of these actors are talented and provide support to the Day-Lewis as he takes Lincoln through one of the most important months in US history.
So let’s talk about Daniel Day-Lewis. He already has two Oscars and can be handed the trophy right now. He absorbs the role, gives many amazing speeches and shows the struggles he was going through so perfectly. He even looks freakishly like the pictures of Lincoln. Day-Lewis plays Lincoln like a tragic Shakespearian hero, who has many soliloquies and metaphor stories that he uses for arguments and to teach his peers. Every scene that he is in centres around Lincoln and Day-Lewis leads it without any stumbles or mistakes even when challenged by Seward and Mary. He is funny, emotional and wise; a man who all the characters trust and admire. I am willing to predict that this role will both define Day-Lewis’s career and become the way everyone sees Lincoln. It is that powerful and that special.
All in all, Lincoln is an Oscar fodder film. But it is a great one. Not everyone will enjoy the fact that it is all talking and the ending leaves much to be desired. But the actors performances dominate the show, bringing all the important historical figures to life with such breath and accuracy. But it is Day-Lewis’s show and he dominates, leading the charge all the way to the box office and the award ceremonies. Spielberg has another classic here and one people should experience both for the acting and the historical significance.