Reviewed by Jim Reed
Here’s the thing—and this is not a new thing—Daniel Day-Lewis may well be the greatest living film actor. He is able to do something in this film that only a handful of actors would have been able to pull off: he reminds us that this near-mythical legend of a historical figure was an actual human being.
Lincoln is the story of the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) time in office, as he tries to shrewdly navigate the political tension of both abolishing slavery and negotiating peace. Director Steven Spielberg is still one of the best visual storytellers around, and the rest of his crew is in fine form as well, with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski bringing his usual angelic flare to the images. But this is in large part an actor’s film. There are scenes, particularly one conversation in the quaint White House kitchen between Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones (who plays pro-abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens), that left me mesmerized by the amount of freedom Day-Lewis felt in playing the 16th President. What makes this so difficult, aside from the accent, which by many historical accounts is pretty spot on, is that the myth of Abraham Lincoln is so built and defined in our cultural milieu that it is nearly impossible not to caricature the man. And to the other performers’ credit, it would have been easy to slide into irrelevancy, but they hold their own quite nicely.
Much of the praise for this must go to screenwriter Tony Kushner (who last wrote 2005’s magnificent and underrated Munich for Spielberg), because Kushner’s script, though perhaps structurally flawed to an extent, is a beautifully written character film. It allows the actors to explore and be at their best, which many of them are. The other strength of Kushner’s script is his penchant for detail and culture. While it is easy for a 21st Century audience to sit and sneer at slavery, Kushner and the actors remind us of the serious cultural and economic implications of the 13th Amendment’s passing.
I had two major issues with the film, and this is where some spoilers come in (though, honestly, it’s a movie about Abraham Lincoln, what don’t we already know?). First, while I usually love John Williams’ musical scores, there is just too much music in this movie. Music is an outstanding tool for helping the audience know how they ought to feel during certain situations, and in many cases is used to amazing affect (as is the case for me in other movies Williams scored such as Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Schindler’s List). In other situations though, the music can be a bit overwhelming and undercut the emotional power of a film. This is the sense I got with this one. Now perhaps this is not all Williams’ fault, Spielberg must take some blame as well. The film is structured so that the emotional payoff comes at a moment we already understand is a historical certainty, and because this moment is more generalized and less personal within the film, the sweeping power of the music does not have legs on which to stand.
The second issue I have with the film is the ending. The assassination of Lincoln is, like the passage of the 13th Amendment, a historical understood. It is an event so deeply ingrained in our cultural narrative that unless the movie is about the assassination it bears no necessity of mention. I approve of the decision to bookended the film with two of Lincoln’s speeches, but feel that the power of the final speech is undercut by the filmmakers’ insistence on showing a glimpse of the assassination aftermath. It is an addition that unnecessarily mythologizes a man the film has worked so hard to humanize.
Aside from these two issues the film is terrific! The film balances well the grand and the intimate, and has some magnificently executed moments of human struggle. Like I mentioned before, part of the beauty of the film is that it does not amplify legend at the marginalization of humanity. The story is an example of a simple man, placed in an extraordinary situation, who chooses to do justice and love kindness. Something to which I hope we all feel called.
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