review: lincoln

By Chris Robinson on 11/20/2012

With Lincoln, the once unimpeachable Steven Spielberg announces his return to center stage. Having not made a really relevant film since 2005’s Munich, Spielberg, who in recent years has served up such stinkers as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Cowboys & Aliens, finally recaptures his knack for pleasing critics and audiences alike that made him famous in the first place.

Synopsis – As the Civil War continues to rage, America’s president struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield and as he fights with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves. Trailer

Details: starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader

Rating/Runtime: PG-13/149 min.

Dingo Dictum: A-

 

But first, some caveats.  Although Lincoln represents his best work in over a decade, Spielberg’s craftsmanship here still falls short of his once lofty levels (admittedly, JawsSchindler’s List, and Saving Private Ryan are a pretty tough standard to live up to).  The script, although at times brilliantly snappy and frequently inspiring, occasionally runs away with itself, leaving the viewer wondering what is going on, and why he should care (read: lots of windy, pompous political speeches).  The mazy plot weaves together Lincoln’s personal relationships with his young son, older son, wife, and Secretary of State, and the ups and downs of the Civil War, together with the behind-the-scenes politicking undergirding it all.  If you are not intimately familiar with Federalism vs. anti-Federalism, 1860’s political party alliances and Capitol Hill parlance, as well as the ins and outs of Lincoln’s cabinet, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the 13th Amendment, Civil War battle strategy, and historical issues of the day in general, you will have a lot of catching up to do.  And listen closely, because 19th century politicians speak quickly (and with heavy accents).  Make no mistake: the plot is engrossing and the action is gripping (much of the time, at least), but if it sounds like a lot to take in all in one sitting, that’s because it is. Lincoln is half history lesson, half Hollywood flourish. To his credit, Spielberg avoids deifying our 16th president, instead portraying him as a real man who is not devoid of weakness, but fiercely determined to overcome it – both for the good of his country and his fellow man. However, something about the film (even as it lumbered past the two-hour mark) left me wanting just a little bit more.

One thing we get plenty of is Daniel Day-Lewis.  His tour-de-force performance in the title role is truly breathtaking, utterly convincing, and must be seen to be believed.  Considering the degree of difficulty in portraying America’s most beloved hero, probably, ever (and as a foreigner, no less!), I would lose every last ounce of faith in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should he fail to win the Oscar for Best Actor this coming February 24th.  No performance this year is so inspired – Day-Lewis doesn’t play Abraham Lincoln, he becomes him.  Sally Field’s performance as Mary Todd Lincoln is similarly compelling (she is every bit as tortured and unlikeable as the real Mary purportedly was), and Tommy Lee Jones very nearly steals the show as feisty, quick-witted attack dog abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Lincoln is a good movie, but to claim that the performances of its outstanding cast outshine the film itself would not be outlandish.  John William’s excellent score and a fabulous costuming and makeup department further contribute.

Although the quasi-sepia photography gets a little old (everything is gray, gray, and more gray) and the film at times seems more concerned with boggy details than with sweeping, grand gestures, Lincoln is, overall, a resounding success. Moving, uplifting, and of course educational, the film is a must-see.  Δ

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