LINCOLN starts off like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN: people fighting and dying for war. In Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, the scale of D-Day was astonishing and gruesome. This memorable first scene sets the tone throughout the entire movie — even if characters make jokes an hour into the movie, it was hard to fully remove yourself from how truly awful war was. While LINCOLN’s first scene doesn’t hold nearly the same grand scale that SAVING PRIVATE RYAN’s did, it serves the same function. We’re made to look upon brothers fighting in the rain, in the mud, with their bare hands if they had to. It’s a short scene, but the rest of the movie is haunted by the thought of these men — all around the country — fighting and dying for what’s going on in Washington DC.
It’s often hard for big studio pictures to equal the sum of its parts — not so for 2012’s LINCOLN. On the outset, I was super excited for this movie: it’s got one of the best living directors heading it (Steven Spielberg) with one of the best living actors leading it (Daniel Day Lewis) about one of the most significant moments in American (and human) history (the ratification of the 13th amendment) from the perspective of one of America’s most beloved presidents (Abraham Lincoln). But wait! There’s more: a DP that can make anything look cinematic and beautiful (Janusz Kaminski) and a cast of some of the best actors in supporting roles (Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Lee Pace, John Hawkes, James Spader, Walton Goggins, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael Stuhlbarg, and plenty of others). It seems that a movie like LINCOLN would never be able to live up to its pedigree — but it does. LINCOLN is one of the best movies of 2012, and I can’t think of anyone I wouldn’t recommend this movie to.
First, I’d like to clarify that this movie is not a biopic in the traditional sense — it’s not a movie about the life of Abraham Lincoln. LINCOLN is about Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to ratify the (then controversial) 13th amendment to the United States Constitution. If you’re not familiar with the story already, the 13th amendment clarified that equal rights ought to be provided for all people, of all creed and race. In today’s time, this sensibility seems like nothing special, but in the 19th century, it divided the nation. Getting congress to ratify any amendment can be an arduous process, but Lincoln was up against near-insurmountable odds: he faced a split (and nearly hostile) congress and a strict time line (he wanted to pass it before his re-inauguration after his re-election). Oh, and let’s not forget that the entire country was at war with itself in the bloody and brutal Civil War. This is what the movie is about: we pick up in the middle of the civil war, just after President Lincoln’s re-election, and the movie ends just short of the amendment’s ratification.
The film is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book TEAM OF RIVALS. Spielberg and (screenwriter) Tony Kushner do well to shrink the scope of their story. Rather than trying to cover every element of Abraham Lincoln’s life, they focus in on one of the most pivotal moments of his life and of American history. Working on this smaller scale, Spielberg is able to capture the drama of it all — there are clear story arcs at work here. LINCOLN is excellently paced with plenty of moments of drama, suspense, and even comedy. The movie never for a moment feels like a history lesson. The political maneuverings are fun to watch and, even if you know the story, feel cinematic. Spielberg never gets jingoistic about America either — there’s a sense of patriotism here, but it’s earned by watching the characters on screen fighting for human rights, rather than hollow platitudes.
There’s considerable buzz that Daniel Day Lewis is a shoe-in for the Best Actor Oscar, and the hype is warranted. Lewis is good in pretty much everything he does, but he genuinely disappears as Lincoln. While watching the movie, I would forget that the character on screen wasn’t the actual Abraham Lincoln. He comes across as stern, stoic, and infinitely wise. Through the movie, it appears to be a defeated man, but he is still able to find the beauty in moments with his young son, or camaraderie with his staff with a few jokes. I wouldn’t say that Lewis steals the show though (as he did in THERE WILL BE BLOOD) — the rest of the cast is phenomenal. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens (the staunch, idealistic congressman) is excellent; James Spader as W.N. Bilbo (as hired gun sent out to obtain votes from on-the-fence congressmen) is hilarious; Michael Stuhlbarg as George Yeaman (the nervous, on-the-fence Democrat) is great. I really could go on — the acting is superb.
LINCOLN is one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2012, and Spielberg’s most consistent drama since MUNICH. While there is a bit of foul language (and violence in the first scene), I would recommend this movie highly to anyone interested in it. Go see it.