Even if Lincoln centered on the final months of a fictitious man instead of a real-life one, it still would be worth watching. That’s how you know a movie based on an historical figure is a good one - it doesn’t use its historical context as a crutch for why it’s relevant or why we should see it. Instead, it relies on things that make any movie good: story, mood, performances, production values and how well it’s able to relay its message and emotion.
Movie Review: Lincoln
By Matthew Huntley
November 26, 2012
The reason to see Lincoln, among other things, is because it’s about a fascinating protagonist, a tenacious, honorable man who stood his ground because he believed in and defended his principles to no end, yet he barely raised his voice. He was stubborn, yes, but if there’s anything worth being stubborn about, it’s ending one of human history’s most shameful practices. Abraham Lincoln knew in his heart and bones that slavery was wrong and the road block that was preventing America from moving forward as a united nation. Lincoln is the story of how his ideal went from a concept to a reality and was finally amended to the U.S. Constitution.
Steven Spielberg has obviously taken on the enormous task of bringing Abraham Lincoln to the big screen. Hitherto now, there has never been a major motion picture about America’s most iconic figure. If you were to ask even the most elementary students of United States history, they could probably tell you Lincoln was the 16th president and describe what he looked like – tall, skinny, black bearded, wrinkled, and had a constant twinkle in his eye. They could also tell you of his signature top hat. That Spielberg and his lead actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, are able to make us see beyond these superficialities and realize the convictions and feelings of a living, breathing man is somewhat of a miracle, although, given their caliber of talent, not exactly surprising.
There was so much to Lincoln’s life that Lincoln itself feels like the closing volume of a much longer biopic. I can easily envision two other films being made about him, one that chronicles his upbringing and the other his rise to political power. But Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, working from the novel Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, have decided to focus on the last four months of Lincoln’s life, when he was just re-elected to his second term, despite the on-going and unpopular Civil War. They delve into Lincoln’s greatest lasting legacy - his commitment to end slavery, which he championed not for political reasons but because he believed that it was simply wrong for one man to own another.
The consequences of freeing blacks and how much it would change the fabric of the United States weren’t of Lincoln’s immediate concern. This attitude frightened many people because they knew how much adjustment and reconstruction that would accompany recognizing blacks as equal citizens. But in a way Lincoln didn’t care; his foremost intention was to end the cruelty, injustice and prejudice against people whom he thought were equal not only in the eyes of the law but in the eyes of God and nature. Come hell or high water, he was going to get the 2/3 majority of votes from the House of Representatives to pass the 13thamendment. “I am the President of the United States, clothed in great power! You will get me my votes,” he sternly said to his constituents.
In the end, we all know what happened, but the purpose of Lincoln is to show how it happened and the lengths and strategies the men and women would go to see that it did. The most famous among these was Lincoln’s equally stubborn and vocal wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), who played an integral role in Lincoln’s decisions. The film suggests he was even slightly afraid of her and worried about her reaction should he make the wrong decision. We see what he means when she gives a good talking to Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the ardent abolitionist and Radical Republican from Pennsylvania.
It’s easy to call out Day-Lewis, Field and Jones because they have the meatiest roles in the film, but they are among a cast of excellent actors, a list that includes David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill and Tim Blake Nelson. Clearly, Spielberg had every intention of making his film with the highest of class.
The film concentrates on the unrelenting conversations, debates and lobbying that took place at this time, both personal and public, until voting day on January 31, 1865. Most of this is one-sided and from the perspective of Lincoln and his family, but the important thing is for us to get a sense of the amendment’s breadth and that it entangled and affected so many people. That much Spielberg gets across and Lincoln, as a result, works as a thoughtful history lesson. And the production and costume designers have faithfully brought the era to life. There’s a reason they call a movie like this Oscar bait and it’s sure to be nominated for its technical richness as much as its performances.
But as accurate and interesting as the film is, it’s not always entertaining or engaging as a story. There were parts of Lincoln that felt longwinded, drawn out and redundant. At times, Kushner lays the grandstanding speeches on a little thick and the dialogue often sounds wrought and unnatural. Perhaps this was the point - for the delivery to sound rehearsed and histrionic, as a means of showing off the times. But it’s done to the point that we grow weary and say to ourselves, “Here we go again” (the president even has his Secretary of War saying, “I can’t stand to listen to another one of your stories”). John Williams’ mawkish score underlines it all and the entire emotional effect feels a tad laborious and excessive.
I don’t want to make it sound like any of this is outright bad, but parts of Lincoln are admittedly dry and I wish Spielberg had spiced things up by not using so many long takes, tracking shots and deep focus. Perhaps if he cut more and moved his camera around, he could have brought more energy to the screen. I should point out my use of the word entertaining simply means the film doesn’t always move like it should. A movie can be about any subject as important as Abraham Lincoln or the abolition of slavery, but that doesn’t make it a good default. It still has to be well made.
And Lincoln is well made, not to mention superbly acted, but it’s also slow and often too heavy emotionally. Still, I encourage anyone to see it so they can be reminded of how painstaking a process it was (and still is) just to grant other human beings something as simple as freedom. Nowadays, of course, it’s amazing to think such an issue was even up for debate. Lincoln was a man who set out to make sure it no longer could be, at least not in the United States. Spielberg’s film reaffirms in us the notion that liberty is indeed a right, even though many, in Lincoln’s time, believed it was a privilege.