MOVIE REVIEW: LINCOLN (2012)
By Michael Arruda
Let me get this straight: LINCOLN (2012) is a movie about our most loved and revered U.S. President, directed by one of the most talented and successful directors of all time, Steven Spielberg, starring one of the best actors of his generation, Daniel Day-Lewis, in the lead role, and featuring an ensemble cast that’s second to none. Talk about a winning combination! If this movie were a poker hand, it’d be four aces.
LINCOLN is one of those movies that is nearly impossible to find fault with, and really, why would you want to? It depicts a moment in history that defined our nation, and the movie presents this moment in a manner that is second to none. Direction, acting, music, sets, costumes, and make-up are all phenomenal. It really is a special movie.
LINCOLN takes place during the final days of the American Civil War. Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) desperately wants to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which will outlaw slavery in the United States forever. Lincoln knows that his Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves during the Civil War was a wartime measure, issued because of his war powers as Commander-in-Chief. He knows that come peace time, there is nothing on the books to keep slavery illegal, and most likely slavery will return, an idea Lincoln finds intolerable.
The problem Lincoln faces, as explained to him by his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), is that there’s simply no support for the amendment in the House of Representatives. The measure had already passed in the Senate. The Democrats aren’t interested in the amendment at all, and the support from his own party, the Republicans, is lukewarm at best, and his party members are only interested in the amendment as a way to end the war. If the war were to end first, then there would be very little support from Congress or the public in freeing the slaves.
And so things grow complicated when Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) arranges for a peace delegation from the South to travel north to meet with Lincoln to negotiate an end to the war. Members of his own party argue against Lincoln meeting this Southern contingent, telling him that if the war ends, then the amendment will never pass. Lincoln counters by saying it’ll be worse if they learn that he was offered a chance to end the war and refused it.
Lincoln agrees to meet with the Southern peace delegation, while at the same time he employs a team of men to work furiously behind the scenes to get the votes needed to pass the amendment. This team is led by W.N Bilbo (James Spader), and basically their job is to offer the Congressmen political favors in return for voting for the amendment. Some Congressmen agree, but most don’t, and some even try to kill Bilbo. Ah, the world of politics!
Meanwhile, on the House floor, the most vocal proponent of the amendment is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), but his views on slavery are so liberal that his words are often used against him. In his case, Lincoln’s team works on getting him to temper his remarks, in order for them to achieve the common goal of passing the amendment.
If all this political turmoil wasn’t enough, Lincoln is also dogged at home. His oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is angry that his father won’t let him enlist, and constantly argues with him, demanding that he allow him to do so. His wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) is still grieving over the death of their middle son and will absolutely not forgive her husband if he allows his son to enlist, which in his heart, he knows he should do. In one of the movie’s best scenes, Lincoln argues with Mary, yelling at her in a rare moment of lost composure that he should have had her committed.
Even though we know from history how all these events eventually played out, the movie does a masterful job at building suspense over whether or not the Thirteenth Amendment will be passed, and shows the amazing integrity, intelligence, and political ability of our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln.
It’s a great script by Tony Kushner, based in part on the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. As such, watching this film is similar to reading a book. It’s filled with deep, rich characters, and its story really resonates on screen.
There are many, many emotional moments throughout LINCOLN. The scene where Lincoln makes his case to his Cabinet that the amendment must pass is riveting, as are the scenes where the president argues with his wife Mary and son Robert.
And the sequence towards the end of the movie when the House must vote on the amendment is chock full of suspense.
Daniel Day-Lewis is excellent as Lincoln. He portrays a Lincoln that you simply don’t want to stop watching. You really feel as if you are watching the real Abraham Lincoln. And in conjunction with this phenomenal acting performance, the make-up job on him is also incredible.
The rest of the cast is almost as good as Daniel Day-Lewis. Tommy Lee Jones is outstanding as Thaddeus Stevens. It’s a dominating scene-stealing performance, and if not for Day-Lewis, I’d be saying that Jones delivered the best performance in the movie, but in this case, he’ll have to settle for second best.
Sally Field also dominates as Mary Todd Lincoln. Come Oscar time, these three most likely will be nominated for acting awards.
David Strathairn shines as Secretary of State Seward. Strathairn’s a fine actor who we saw in the last two BOURNE movies, and once again he doesn’t disappoint.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt adds first-rate support as Robert Lincoln. How many movies is Gordon-Levitt going to appear in this year? He’s been unbelievably busy, and in each film I see him in he seems to get better and better.
I also really enjoyed James Spader as W.N. Bilbo. His efforts and antics in trying to “buy” the votes of the congressmen provide some of the more humorous moments in the movie. Jackie Earle Hailey is solid as Alexander Stephens, the leader of the Southern peace delegation. His brief speech when speaking with Lincoln sums up the South’s position as to why they were hesitant to accept Lincoln’s peace terms. Like other scenes in this movie, this sequence does a great job presenting all sides to the arguments made in the film. There are definitely shades of gray throughout, rather than black and white.
Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair delivers a notable performance as well, one of his more memorable performances in years.
But better than this cast, and perhaps every bit the equal of Daniel Day-Lewis, is the extraordinary directorial job by Steven Spielberg. LINCOLN is an absolutely beautiful production. Many of the scenes of Lincoln are so creatively shot, they look like paintings. We see Lincoln in silhouette, behind sheer curtains, and in the shadows—there is a tremendous use of shadow in this movie. I have to admit, there were times I was distracted from the story because I was so impressed by the visuals in this movie.
I said LINCOLN was a movie that was nearly impossible to find fault with, but it’s not perfect. As a movie driven by dialogue, acting, and an historical story, there’s very little action in this one. As a result, it’s rather slow-paced. It takes its time, and its 150 minutes don’t exactly fly by.
But truthfully, this didn’t bother me all that much. I was totally captivated by the entire package from beginning to end.
There’s also an excellent music score by John Williams, one of his more effective scores in years. It’s very subtle and not over-the-top dramatic, as some of his recent scores have been.
LINCOLN is a movie that shouldn’t be missed. Its subject matter, Abraham Lincoln, combined with the talent behind it, most notably Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis, make it more of a cinematic experience than a movie.
I give it an enthusiastic four knives.
© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda
Michael Arruda gives LINCOLN ~four knives.