You would think a film about one of the greatest leaders in human history directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis would make for a great film. Lincoln is a great film, but it’s one of the least Spielberg-ian and Day-Lewis-ian efforts in either’s filmographies. Instead Lincolnsucceeds on a fantastic script and a large ensemble of talented actors led by Daniel Day-Lewis in a performance where the subtleties of it are the best part.
Lincoln takes place during the closing months of the American Civil War as Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his cabinet try to get the 13th Amendment passed in Congress before they are pressured into a peace agreement with the South. The film is directed by Steven Spielberg from a screenplay by renowned playwright Tony Kushner.
After a disappointing year in 2011 (where he saw most of his television projects bomb and his two films being some of his worst efforts yet), Steven Spielberg needed this film to be a good one. While it is a good one, this is still one of Spielberg’s lesser directorial efforts. Spielberg brings one of his most restrained efforts yet to this film as he smartly lets Tony Kushner’s script lead the film. Kushner’s screenplay is filled with tense, funny and just plain out well-written dialogue. Each character gets his moment and Kushner really makes you fall in love with Lincoln the man instead of Lincoln the legend. It’s not until the final act when Spielberg’s restrained direction betrays the film and becomes a problem. This is when the film needed a director to lead the script to the finish line as it focuses on some more visually demanding events. By letting Kushner’s script lead the way in the closing act, Spielberg bungles the conclusion to the passage of the 13th Amendment arc. Instead of an intense moment, we get a paint-by-numbers congressional vote that seems like it came straight from CSPAN. The film then proceeds to give us almost ten endings instead of one really impactful one.
That being said this film is worth it alone for the loaded cast (between this, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty this is going to be a great year for ensembles). Daniel Day-Lewis is going to be the closest we ever get to seeing a video of the real Lincoln. Instead of going for a bunch of big, grandstanding moments like he normally does (and don’t worry he still gets one or two), Day-Lewis really makes this performance work on all of the subtle mannerisms and quiet moments. While Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field don’t give as great a performance as Day-Lewis that each get one really good moment (an argument with Day-Lewis over her sanity for Sally Field and an impactful facial expression from Tommy Lee Jones upon a final act twist). Meanwhile, David Strathairn (as Lincoln’s Secretary of State), David Costabile (a leading member of Congress), Michael Stuhlbarg (as a swing voter in Congress) and especially James Spader (as a lobbyist for Lincoln) and Lee Pace (as the film’s main antagonist) do phenomenal work in small roles.
With a powerful script and one of the most talented casts of the year, Lincoln is able to surpass its flaws.