Genre(s): Biography, History, Drama
Director(s): Steven Spielberg
Release Year: 2012
Rotten Tomatoes: 93%
With most biopics, the reason we are so interested in them is because they threaten to take their star down from his powerful placement in history, and show him as human rather than god. This year we get two hotly anticipated films which will attempt to do just that: Hitchcock and Lincoln. Both men have contributed so much in their respective fields that they are rarely seen in a bad light, nor are people ecstatic to see them portrayed as mere men. However, I can definitely say Lincoln attempts to show Abraham Lincoln as one of us, and not merely an icon placed upon an unreachable pedestal. With incredible acting on the part of everyone, but especially Sally Field and Daniel Day-Lewis, and writing by Tony Kushner that is both enticing and fitting for the period, Lincoln is a concrete example of how to make a biopic flourish while still being faithful and engrossing.
I am not a history major, nor will I attempt to believe I know a lot about Lincoln’s political and personal life. However, the picture that was portrayed by Kushner, and subsequently Steven Spielberg, of President Lincoln seemed chillingly honest. With a quick search on the internet, I’m sure there are many aspects to Lincoln’s life that were fabricated (for example, did Lincoln really hit his wife? It’s possible, but only once or twice judging by the portrayal in the film) but it’s not whether it’s fabricated that matters when it comes to film, but whether we believe it could be true. That is the power of film, and with that ounce of fiction in something, there’s a chance to make something interesting rather than the portrayal of a man who simply passed an amendment and then got assassinated. That really is what this film is about: following Lincoln’s attempts to pass the 13th amendment to abolish slavery and his trials and tribulations within that time. For a movie that is about passing an amendment it was rather interesting, but that helps from it being so well-acted, and having some incredible dialogue. Unfortunately, my complaint with Lincoln is not that it took too many liberties with the life of Honest Abe, but that not enough were taken to pull him from that status of being impeachable. I think there’s one part of his life that happens off-screen which could have easily shown him more human than anything else, but instead it was decided for it to occur off-screen, presumably to keep that god-like aura around Lincoln.
It comes down to the performances, though, on whether we’re sold on Lincoln’s portrayal, and his humanity. Who better to play any role than Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the best actors of our generation, and boy does he relish in that top hat and facial hair. When Lincoln is on screen, we feel the power of the performance, with Day-Lewis burrowing deep into the character and portraying Lincoln like he’s never been portrayed before. Then there’s Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field, who is portrayed so wonderfully as a slightly crazy, but caring mother. Along for the ride is David Strathairn, who is always great, and plays Lincoln’s secretary of state, William Seward. But beyond the main characters are so many incredible actors who may not get the most prominent roles, but they sure shine in what little they’re given. John Hawkes, Michael Stuhlbarg, James Spader, Jared Harris, Adam Driver, Lukas Haas, Dane DeHaan, and David Costabile. The list goes on and on, and the actor that I think really surprised me the most was Tommy Lee Jones, who for once did not phone in a performance like he has for several years now. I really enjoy him generally, and even his recent HBO film The Sunset Limited was riveting for me, but here we finally get to see him do a lot more than he normally does. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him get a Best Supporting Actor nomination, along with Sally Field for Best Supporting Actress, and Daniel Day-Lewis of course receiving a nomination for Best Actor.
While the performances truly are the best part of this film, there’s always the score that needs to be mentioned in any Spielberg film. John Williams once again hits it out of the park providing subtlety in many moments, but also a very epic, overpowering soundtrack to accompany some of Lincoln’s speeches and the big emotional beats (such as riding through a war-torn landscape). It’s typical Williams/Spielberg fare and isn’t anything revolutionary, but it is still worth noting due to its contribution to the audience’s emotional response. It definitely doesn’t feel like I was being contrived to feel a certain way during scenes, at least not as much as I usually feel from a Williams score.
There’s also many other things that deserve praise such as the costumes, the set designs, the editing, and most importantly the cinematography. There are so many memorable shots in the film that I can keep playing back in my mind, making this film definitely worth buying later on just for that alone. There are some minor problems that I had with the film, most of which stem from a long runtime. It’s a Spielberg film, so it definitely is expected to be long, but at 120 minutes, the movie does feel like it added some last minute plot details for extra padding. Lincoln’s relationship with his eldest son (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is everywhere this year) felt very unnecessary, except to show that he is a family man and does have family matters that need attention. But with the exception of two conversations between the two, Lincoln’s son is merely a set-piece and nothing more. The final vote for passing the 13th amendment was also a bit unnecessarily long, except to draw out the heightened tension.
Despite the long run-time and some poor utilization of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, there’s a film here that wants to show Abraham Lincoln as more than just an important historical figure. It wants to place him down with every other man, and remove his god-like status, but unfortunately the film cuts away from pivotal moments that would make him seem more human. When it is showing him on screen, he’s delivering the types of speeches we have always associated with him, building that immortalized image of him when he could be seen more like an everyday man. The movie has everything else going for it, and the dialogue is some of the best I’ve heard in recent years. There’s extraordinary talent within the cast, and a score that heightens the emotional state of the viewer, with every other little detail contributing to the overall authenticity of Lincoln. The film is not my favourite of the year, but it was surprisingly interesting despite any previous knowledge I held of the president. It’s riveting, beautifully shot, emotional, and above all, well-written. Yes, there are unnecessary elements to the film, but Spielberg definitely has another winner with Lincoln.