Editor’s note: Lincoln gets its full theatrical release tomorrow, so please enjoy a re-run of our AFI FEST review of the film, originally published way back on November 9.
It opens with a battle. Not the sort of battle we’ve come to expect from movies these days, not one punctuated by booms and blasts and bullets, but one that feels almost eerily and unnaturally quiet. There are hordes of soldiers attacking each other left and right, to be sure, and as they grunt and grasp in hand-to-hand (face-to-face, really) combat, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln immediately lets its audience in on what sort of film it is going to be – a personal one, a deeply felt one, and one startlingly free of what we’ve come to expect from big, bustling films about horrific wars and the beloved men who carry them out. No, Lincoln is not exactly what you’re expecting it to be – and it’s all the better for it.
The plot of Lincoln can be briefly explained in few words – it centers on the last gasps of the American Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) attempts to end it and get the Thirteenth Amendment (the one that outlaws slavery and serves as a a much stricter take on the Emancipation Proclamation) pushed through the divided House of Representatives. Adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s meticulously researched (and nearly 1,000-page long) “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” screenwriter Tony Kushner and Spielberg have distilled down Goodwin’s work to focus on the final months of Lincoln’s life and presidency, allowing Lincoln to serve as a snapshot of not only the most crucial portion of the 16th President’s career, but perhaps the most crucial portion of the United States’ still-young history.
That probably sounds sort of dry and slightly boring, right? It’s not. That’s the real trick of Lincoln, that amidst some hard-hitting (and often quite wonky) political machinations, the film keeps up a strong sense of humor and a hearty grasp on keeping things feeling – and this will be the watchword of this review – accessible. Principally divided between Lincoln’s life and work in the White House (including an unholy amount of time crammed into a stuffy Cabinet Room), the still-more-stuffy and often-punctuated-by-insane-screaming House of Representatives, and the hijinks of a group of rascals (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson, all aces) Lincoln has sort-of hired to sway a select group of Democrats to vote for his beloved amendment, the film still manages to belong almost totally to Day-Lewis’ Lincoln. Thank goodness for all involved that Day-Lewis gives perhaps the performance of his lifetime – a lifetime that has already been marked by career-best performance after career-best performance.
Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a warm-hearted, reachable man with a panache for telling stories and jokes even when situations don’t necessarily call for such levity (during a particularly important moment in the war, Bruce McGill’s Secretary of War Edwin Stanton yells at Lincoln, exasperated, “No! You’re going to tell a story!” and attempts to stalk off). Lincoln is, as we are consistently reminded, beloved by the people. And Lincoln loves his people back – just as accessible as the film itself, Lincoln’s door is always open to his citizens, and not metaphorically, as he routinely welcomes his constituents into his office to help them with myriad problems (even some that, admittedly, would better be served by local or state governments). He travels in an open-top carriage, he visits hospitals alone, he sits with the troops on the battlefield, he comes calling to friends’ homes, he is the “purest man” they believe him to be, even as he struggles mightily with his position and his personal life (Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln is appropriately unhinged and hard to handle, even as she strangely charms).
The entire production is elevated by the work that Day-Lewis has put into his Lincoln, work that is somehow so meticulous and so spot-on without appearing to be “acting” in the overbearing sense. And yet, despite how much of Lincoln is Day-Lewis, the rest of the film’s formidable cast also manages to shine – particularly Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Lee Pace, David Costabile, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Jared Harris. However, as eldest Lincoln son Robbie, Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn’t given much to do, and he doesn’t really do much with it. Meant to serve as a catalyst to Mary’s continued worry and depression, Gordon-Levitt’s Robbie instead reads as flat and unnecessary, despite one small stand-out scene (don’t weep for the actor, though, he’s had a great year already). Yet, whatever Lincoln might lack in blockbuster, popcorn appeal, it makes up for handily with the finest acting you’ll see all year.
Despite its subject matter, Lincoln does not often feel grand, epic, or even excessively highbrow – which is actually a good thing. Like the Lincoln presented in Lincoln, the film is warm, immediate, and vital. It’s both funny and deep, a lesson in hopscotching genres and sassing up history to make an unexpected crowd-pleaser.
The Upside: Uniformly wonderful, rousing performances from a very talented cast (especially Daniel Day-Lewis); unexpectedly humorous throughout; makes the complicated politics of the Civil War feel accessible and vital; a startlingly well-crafted script from Kushner.
The Downside: Makes the complicated politics of the Civil War perhaps too accessible and easily digested; a throwaway performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt; occasionally wrong-headed editing choices.
On the Side: Wondering why we never meet Lincoln’s first term Vice President, Hannibal Hamlin? Wikipedia explains: “At the time, White House etiquette did not require the Vice President to regularly attend cabinet meetings; thus, Hamlin did not regularly visit the White House… For his part, Hamlin complained, ‘I am only a fifth wheel of a coach and can do little for my friends.’” Too bad for Hamlin – Lincoln’s second term VP was Andrew Johnson, who was VP for just 43 days before he became President of the United States after Lincoln’s assassination.