Great President? Or Greatest President? Greatest President, but mad props to Washington, Jefferson, and both Roosevelts, yo.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Three-and-a-half chin beards out of five.
Brief Plot Synopsis: 16th President fights for passage of 13th Amendment before the end of the 1st Civil War.
Tagline: "Do we choose to be born? Or are we fitted to the times we're born into?"
Better Tagline: "I thought that Civil War would never end."
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: As President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) begins his second term, the Civil War is far from over and his party's lead in the House isn't big enough to ensure passage of the 13th Amendment, which will eliminate the institution of slavery. The President is forced to seek votes from his Democratic rivals while at the same time manipulating his own Republican allies' attempts to broker a peace with the Confederacy, which would jeopardize the Amendment's passage.
"Critical" Analysis: I guess we won't be seeing another Jurassic Park movie from Steven Spielberg any time soon.
Not that the director has completely eschewed childish fare (The Adventures of Tintin, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), but you can tell that the historical dramas really pump his nads, to quote John Bender. His latest, Lincoln, has been kicking around since 2001, with Liam Neeson originally attached to star.
[What if they'd stayed with Neeson in the role? After Taken and Taken 2, all I can picture is Honest Abe swatting the gun out of John Wilkes Booth's hand and hurling him off the balcony in Ford's Theater while bellowing, "Consider that an emancipation!"]
Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, the movie covers the last three-and-a-half months of Lincoln's life (spoiler warning, he's assassinated), heavily emphasizing the three week struggle to get the 13th Amendment passed in January of 1865. Tony Kushner's script focuses on the intense lobbying by Lincoln and agents of Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), subsumed under the urgency of knowing the war is about to kick into high gear again as spring approaches.
It probably goes without saying that Lincoln is as dialogue-heavy and performance driven as just about any movie in recent memory. Kushner paints Lincoln, by turns, as a passionate opponent of human bondage, a canny politician who wielded his immense power judiciously, and a folksy conversationalist as fond of yarns and personal anecdotes as he was of his sons. It's intense, detailed stuff, and I honestly don't know how audiences are going to respond to what is essentially 2.5 hours of speechifying bookended by brief scenes of wartime atrocity.
But if your buttons aren't pushed appropriately, it isn't for Spielberg and his usual suspects' lack of trying. Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński capably captures the required majesty of the appropriate historical landmarks and composer John Williams continues to drive home every emotional cue with the subtlelty of a snow shovel to the forehead. Normally, it would be hard to gauge how powerful the performances were when you're constantly bombarded with swelling violins.
I say "normally" because this really is a buffet of thespian excellence. Daniel Day-Lewis is a given (side note, Bruce McGill plays Secretary of War Stanton, leading me to wonder if anyone ever called Lewis "D-Day Lewis" when he was a kid. Someone should look that up), and he inhabits the role so naturally he demands your attention from the get-go. The weight of four years of war lies heavy, but Lewis shows the fire still burns within him.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Meanwhile, the rest of the cast reads like an acting workshop syllabus: Strathairn, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Tommy Lee Jones, and last but not least, Sally Field as the emotionally damaged yet still withering Mary Todd Lincoln.
If my enthusiasm for Lincoln seems a bit lacking, it's because of the aforementioned emotional manipulation, and also the ending. Or rather, the lack thereof. There were, at minimum, three occasions in the film where Spielberg could have wrapped things up, but instead he tacks on the assassination, the better to remind us of our national loss. We get it.
Lincoln is in theaters today. Go see it, it's what your high school history teacher would have wanted.