Where do I begin? This was a film that I had so many expectations for, and most of them were met. Before I get into this review, I want to say right off the bat that I think this film might be very difficult for anyone other than a history or Civil War buff to truly enjoy. Not to say that this is a dull film, because it is not, and is filled with complexity and enlivening dialogue, but as an actor once told me when it comes to Civil War films, “One bearded guy giving a speech to a bunch of bearded guys in one scene looks exactly the same to the general public as another bearded guy giving a speech to a bunch of bearded guys in the next one.” I feel that it would be unfair to use that quote to classify exactly what Lincoln is, but due to the fact that this film is entirely dialogue-driven, and lasts nearly two hours and a half, it might be a bit tough for some people to get through.
Luckily, though, the caliber of the cast helps to transform the dialogue and bring it to life, and sometimes, we forget we are even watching a movie. Everyone has mentioned Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones as being shoe-ins for Oscar nods, and I agree with that assessment, but forgotten after those three are the performances of Lee Pace, James Spader, David Strathairn, and Hal Holbrook, all of whom are exceptional. I actually wanted to see much more of Pace as Fernando Wood due to his grand style of oration in the debate scenes, and had he gotten a larger look, he probably could have received consideration for a supporting actor Oscar—the same could be said for Spader and Strathairn, who have much more screen-time. If it was not for them collectively bringing their acting levels up a notch, Lincoln probably would have went the way of every other recent historical drama: tons of promise but a box office failure, despite drawing praise from history buffs, but ire from everyone else. Based on the reviews so far, it seems to have avoided that, and thankfully so, because this is a film that needs to do well from the Civil War genre perspective. That was why it was so important for these characters to breathe life into the history, because this film potentially has a chance to reach the largest audience for a Civil War film since Gone with the Wind in 1939.
To start on the actual cast, I will affirm what the critics have said: Daniel Day-Lewis becomes Abraham Lincoln with his performance. Enough said. During the film, we see him go through nearly every human emotion: happiness, humor, anger, and frustration. While mostly remaining stoic, we do get a chance to see the first complete, humanist portrayal of America’s sixteenth president. This also allows his humor and extensive story-telling (which becomes a running joke throughout) to catch us off-guard a bit. And yes, as I speculated in an article months ago, some of his more spicy humor does indeed make it in, regarding a certain “George Washington” joke. While I was a bit underwhelmed early on, the performance really took off during and after the scene in which he has an argument with his wife, over their son enlisting in the army and mention of him previously considering having Mary Todd committed to an asylum, adding to the tragedy of his life, and showing that essentially, he was fighting a war on two fronts. It also shows Lincoln perfectly being what he really was: a politician. Without giving every little detail away, let’s just leave it at shady backroom deals have been going on in Washington for longer than we thought! His portrayal is both haunting and definitive, and will probably be what we remember him for when looking back on his acting career. A brief note on Sally Field: there is a reason why she campaigned for this role, because deep down, she must have thought she could do it perfectly, and she did.
When it comes to Tommy Lee Jones as the anti-slavery Thaddeus Stevens, let’s just say he steals every scene he is in. Whether in a quiet exchange with the president, shouting intelligently framed insults at opponents on the house floor, or even in a hilarious back-room scene where he “persuades” the German-accented Alexander Coffroth (Boris McGiver) to vote for the thirteenth amendment, after giving him a dose of what politics is all about. In this scene, he bestows a mind-numbing amount of insults at the Democrat who also represents Pennsylvania, which goes right over the man’s head (including mispronouncing his name as “Coff-snot”), to the delight of the audience. Also, as something I wanted to see included, there is mention of the wig Stevens wears, as well as a scene in which he takes it off—yet another humanly touch that allowed people to put aside how ugly it was because they now knew there was a reason for it.
While a great bit of tongue-in-cheek, and sometimes, over-the-head humor, comes from Lincoln and Stevens, the funniest scenes are by far and away when James Spader’s character is on-screen as W.N Bilbo, the man in charge of “persuading” certain people to vote a certain way for the thirteenth amendment. He is there for comedic relief, and it is a very welcome addition in an otherwise somber and heavy movie. Regarding his character, it is important to note that the transfer of money for the so-called bribes is never depicted, and only hinted at. Also breaking up the film, while not with humor, but with happiness and tenderness, is Gulliver McGrath as young Tad Lincoln. We cannot help but smile when we see him playing around with his father, and he becomes the most relatable character to us all, as Lincoln is not a high and mighty president to him, he is just his dad, and they want to spend time with each other as much as they can, especially after the loss of Lincoln’s other son.
Now for the technical aspects of the film. Even though the dialogue is verbose, the only way Tony Kushner does not win an Oscar for his screenplay will be if the world ends in December. While there may have been a few too many stories, and the film probably could have been fifteen minutes shorter, his assemblage and transformation of letters, documents, and research that made writing the script possible borders on miraculous. Film-goers will never be lost in this movie because of confusing content (everything is straightforward, and as long as you pay attention, everything will make sense, even if you find law and politics boring). However, again, due to the length and endless stringing of dialogue-heavy scenes, some people may find it hard to keep up. Thankfully, the comedic relief is plentiful and allows for refocusing.
Thankfully, there were no major disappointments. We were all expecting an abundance of dialogue, we were just not sure how it would be handled. However, the early scenes of the film were, how should I say it, fragmented? Not that it got off to a slow start, because it immediately thrusts us into the debate that would carry the story, but the opening scene of the film where Lincoln talks to a few soldiers about the war is highly improbable to say the least, by way of the content of the conversation. No, this is not a “button police” nitpicking, but can we honestly expect three common soldiers to know perfectly, by heart, the entire wording of the Gettysburg Address only two years after it was written and not widely available for publication? Nice touch to include the speech, sure, but the insertion and way it was executed bordered on preaching and an obvious placement just for the sake of putting it in there. The other disappointment was the underused score by John Williams. Except for a few scenes, we do not get much music at all (unless the theater’s audio somehow masked it), and certainly no blaring of the triumphant melody we heard during the trailer.
The Ending and Assassination (Spoiler Alert!)
We all wondered how this film would end. While I knew months ago that no assassination scene was filmed, I was still curious as to what approach the director would take. Well, I must say, this was the most creative ending ever made to a film about Lincoln. Rather than film the assassination and balcony scene like has been done numerous times, they chose to instead film Lincoln alive for the last time getting ready to leave the White House for the theater, before switching to Tad Lincoln attending a children’s play, Aladdin, when a man bursts onto the stage in the middle of a scene to announce that the president had been shot. The camera then focuses on the young boy’s face as he begins to scream and cry at the announcement. The atmosphere here is more emotional and evocative than if they had filmed him getting shot, and makes you feel heartbroken, not just for the killing of a leader, but of a father and husband, which perhaps, makes the situation all the more horrifying. The final scene of the film is then a flashback to Lincoln giving his second inaugural address, which reinforces the “malice toward none, and charity for all” sentiment expressed by the president to his cabinet as well as General Grant, when talking about reconstruction. If I may be so bold, the final couple of scenes were the perfect way to end it.
There is a ton of value here should a history teacher want to show this in a classroom. Because of the dialogue, it would be best to show this a scene at a time with some skipping around and explanations rather than the whole thing in one shot. An actual field trip to the theater would be worthwhile, but probably only for high school and upper middle school children, who would be able to understand all that is going on. Another issue may be the language, as even though this is a PG-13 movie, there are still two usages of the F-word, a few of the S-word (mostly in a humorous light) and five, that I counted, of the N-word. While the latter word would have been appropriate for the time and historically accurate, teachers should have a warning that it is there.
As has been said numerous times, this is not a war movie. There is one very brief battle scene in the beginning (if you can call it that) which is not much longer than what was seen in the trailer. There is also a brief shot of Wilmington being bombarded, and Lincoln riding through the Petersburg battlefield where we see some carnage, but aside from that, it is all talking. If anything, this is a war of words centered around the abolishment of slavery and trying to get the law passed in the House of Representatives. What we end up having here is a top-notch period piece which walks the fine line between documentary-style film-making and entertainment. Usually when that line is dabbled with, it fails, but as I said earlier, the star caliber of the cast does not allow for it to fall into the snooze-fest category. It may take some effort to stay with it, and if you do, you will be rewarded with a performance of something that has never been acted out before. Politics are, by nature, boring, but the lively debates flip that around and have us waiting with baited breath what is coming out of their mouths next. Part of me wishes debates were like this today, as the insults and non-existent political correctness would be refreshing.
I also want to say that I was happy with how the slavery issue and mood around it was handled. People were expecting Spielberg to give us politically correct, revisionist nonsense, but what he gave us was an accurate depiction of the time, and how most people felt about slaves and colored people in general, even the free ones. It is not a flattering portrayal, nor should it be. The truth needed to be put out there. This is the most complex film Spielberg has made, next to Schindler’s List, and given enough time, will evolve into the same standing that film has today: one of the essentials; a classic. This is reinforced by the artistic nature of the film, which could have suffered in that area. A brief scene early on, recreating one of Lincoln’s dreams as he explains it to Mary Todd establishes this as highly unique, and not willing to just fall in line with other straightforward portrayals.
There is no doubt this film will rake in the Academy Award nominations, and hopefully, the trophies themselves. Best Actor (Day-Lewis), Best Supporting Actor (Jones), Best Supporting Actress (Field), best screenplay, best cinematography, best makeup, and best costume design are no-brainers, while I expect Best Director and Best Picture will be up for the taking as well. By a long shot, I would still like to see Spader or Strathairn also get a Best Supporting Actor nod, but they will not top Tommy Lee Jones. So overall, a great movie that could have been better, but I was not disappointed, and may even go see it again to allow myself the chance to fully grasp what I have seen!
Rating: 8.5 out of 10