Centering on arguably the most beloved figure in American history is no easy task, even for the most celebrated director of our time, Steven Spielberg. To his credit, he wisely enlists the esteemed Daniel Day-Lewis as his collaborator to bring the larger-than-life Abraham Lincoln to life, and on that front the results are nothing short of spectacular.
Towards the end of his life, Lincoln was under about as much pressure as humanly imaginable, and Day-Lewis makes you feel it. Day-Lewis is a once in a generation talent who is famously known for completely immersing himself in his characters for months at a time, and his physical transformation as Lincoln is astonishing. His body seemingly creaks and aches under each movement, his demeanor deathly grave when he’s not sharing his knack for storytelling.
Much attention has been made over his voice, which is higher pitched than usually has been portrayed but more historically accurate. Day-Lewis simply makes it another extension of the character we immediately believe. The film could have consisted entirely of Lincoln in a room talking and still would have been a triumph.
With half the battle already won, Spielberg than goes ahead and proceeds to enlist one of the strongest acting rosters assembled in recent years, just because he’s Spielberg and he can. This isn’t to say it’s automatically the best-acted film of the year, because it’s not. The script is so jam-packed with characters hardly any are given ample time to be developed. So he wisely leans on them to do the heavy lifting and come across with strong personalities in short amounts of time.
Veterans Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn and James Spader are easy standouts, but others are shamefully underutilized, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s son, Robert. Spielberg is clearly most adept at political maneuvering than Lincoln’s personal life, which outside of his relationship with his youngest son leaves much to be desired, and we’re never sure which side of his wife’s we’re supposed to be on.
Looking back, Spielberg’s past forays into historical dramas have been decidedly mixed. Last year’s War Horse was his weakest outing in more than a decade and Amistad, what Lincoln most closely resembles, underwhelmed. Lincoln is easily stronger than both but does have its dry spells, especially in its first half where it takes quite a while to get going. Yet unlike those two, it has a well-timed sense of humor to continually fall back on, an unexpected bonus.
In addition, it offers some eerie parallels to the modern American political landscape. While the country obviously is not on the brink of another civil war, despite those nut-job secession petitions going around online after Obama’s reelection, much of the rhetoric remains largely unchanged and pockets of social unrest continue.
Spielberg also keeps many of his past storytelling tendencies more subdued in Lincoln, which was a smart move and makes the overall picture stronger. However, while it might not be as emotionally calculated as some often find his films to be, an unintended side effect is it’s not as exciting as we’re used to him delivering, either. Sure, everyone already knows the major plot points, but the same case can be made for Munich or this year’s Argo and that didn’t stop them.
Either way, Spielberg definitely butchered the ending, which he had set up poignantly to end with Lincoln walking down a hallway, late for his date at the fated Ford’s Theatre. Instead, a pointless five-minute extended epilogue squanders almost all of the intended impact.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Civil War era ever since I was a kid, and a Spielberg devotee equally as long. All the ingredients for Lincoln to become a modern classic were here, and there’s little question Day-Lewis shines brightest and deserves a third Oscar. But as a passion project Spielberg has spent a decade developing, Lincoln never can measure up to the director’s best when viewed as a whole work, no matter how hard it wants to.