Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s epic look at arguably the best president in American history, is a beautifully realized portrait of a great man and a great performance. Abraham Lincoln has not been effectively profiled on the silver screen, at least in a non-vampire sort of way. So these 150 minutes we spend with him, mostly toward the end of his life as he fought to ban slavery, are quite refreshing and educational. This is a history lesson, expertly written by Tony Kushner, that brings the icons of our history to life with an equal balance of respect and accessibility.
Daniel Day-Lewis, arguably the best actor in American history, portrays the tall president with the memorable beard as a real man, rather than just a faraway American ideal. He’s a father, perhaps a little too old to satisfy the demands of his young son. He’s a husband, grown distant from his ill wife (Sally Field, in a powerful performance). He’s a statesman, perfectly capable of understanding the political scene and orchestrating near-impossible change. He’s a leader, willing to make unpopular decisions for the greater good.
What Kushner and Spielberg do so well is focus their material. We don’t get a soup-to-nuts portrait, and that’s the correct approach when dealing with such rich historic material. By shedding light on a few pivotal months, we receive a complete idea of who this man was and what drove him to change history forever.
Tommy Lee Jones gives one of several supporting performances that help fill out the movie. As Thaddeus Stevens, an impassioned congressman with a personal determination to pass the constitutional amendment, Jones offers a dedicated characterization free of caricature. David Strathairn is quite effective as Lincoln’s righthand man, William Seward (secretary of state). Less successful is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, Abe’s elder son who wants to fight in the deadly war in the South. He’s the victim of one too many story lines.
Spielberg’s lens has an uncanny ability to pick up on such great detail in the epic landscape. Whether it’s a fireside conversation in Lincoln’s home, a debate in the halls of Congress or a scene after a horrible fight on the battlefield, the camera moves effortlessly through the pages of American history. Pay special attention to the lighting and how it frames the wrinkled face of our tortured hero.
Kushner’s screenplay is Oscar-worthy. He condenses the material but never dumbs it down. Much of the eloquence of the times remains intact, and the actors speak with such believability that the language seems to fit.
Lincoln may or may not win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. But the movie seems to be above award recognition. Instead, it will be remembered for Day-Lewis’s performance, another gem in his long resume. Like so many of his films, the actor eclipses the films he populates. Much like Lincoln himself, he’s larger than life.
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tony Kushner; based in part on a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, John Hawkes, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and David Strathairn
Running time: 150 minutes
Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language