A man, not a monument, named Lincoln.
I’m rarely made more aware of what Lincoln was in history than what this powerful biopic reminds me: Lincoln was a man. He wasn’t a fable. He wasn’t a myth. He wasn’t some sanctified holy figure that was crowned with solely freeing the slaves. He wasn’t even technically honest Abe. Abraham Lincoln was, solely, earnestly, realistically, the 16th President of the United States. He was for the Union, he despised slavery, he was humble on approach, and he always fought intently for the things that he believed in: the things that he thought were right.
Depicting the final months of Lincoln’s presidency, including the end of the civil war and the abolishment of slavery, Lincoln is a very personal view of the final months of Abraham Lincoln’s life. In that period Lincoln pushed for african freedom, dealt with conflicting opinions of his cabinet, sought peace negotiations with the confederacy, managed an entire union, and was in a state of emotional grief with his family after the recent death of Lincoln’s middle child, Willie. If you told me that Lincoln had an easy time during his term as American president, I would call you grossly inaccurate.
In this drama-driven biopic, Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Abraham Lincoln. When you watch him in this movie, I guarantee you that you won’t recognize him. Day-Lewis doesn’t just portray the famous president: he embodies and embraces Lincoln’s spirit on every possible level, from the weariness in his voice to the hunch in his back. His performance is so acute, there is barely any indication that he even is Daniel Day-Lewis. For two and half hours he disappears into his role, and we briefly witness the miraculous resurrection of Lincoln through Daniel Day-Lewis. The film lives and breathes on Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance.
Even then, a great actor cannot do anything without great material. Enter Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner. Kushner, who co-wrote Spielberg’s earlier history epic, Munich returns here to compose a story that is as complex and insightful as it is dramatic and informative. Speilberg obviously needs no introduction. For a decade-defining career as Speilberg’s, and for a project as personal to Spielberg as Lincoln, its obvious he would pay as much attention and focus to this era as he would with Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan.
Even then, I’m surprised at Spielberg’s role in this movie. He’s effective as a director with this film, but he’s not the highlight. He kind of takes a backseat to Kushner’s screenplay and Day-Lewis’ performance, with him serving as the production’s moderator rather than their visionary.
Which believe me, I’m fine with that. At times, a director must learn to step back and just let the production flow into place. Here, Spielberg is a great moderator, carefully directing Day-Lewis through Kushner’s fragile, elaborate script and always making sure he never takes the wrong step along the journey. It isn’t like Spielberg’s previous films where it relies on flashy effects and CGI: this film is carefully paced through revealing dialogue and personal character development. While it’s a step out of Speilberg’s comfort zone, it more than works for this production. Lincoln is one of Spielberg’s most personal and most effective works to date.
The film’s only problem: pace. Because this film relies on dialogue and performance as its greatest assets, there are times where the film becomes so muddled within its political kurfuffle and babbling that at times its hard to keep track of all at once. You should know what I’m talking about: Senators and Congressmen shout and babble about to each other in such incoherent conversation that our ears zoom out for a bit and miss some key information we’ll need to remember later on. This will be a problem for some viewers in the audience, as it will be difficult for some people to be hooked on the beginning of Lincoln’s story because of its slow, slow, slow pace.
But even then, I’m so absorbed into Lincoln’s story and Day-Lewis’ performance that I don’t even care about this minute fault. The one thing that defines this film, the one thing Spielberg, Kushner, and Day-Lewis got right more than anything else is Lincoln’s compassion, his character, and his humanity.
I remember an interview Speilberg and Day-Lewis gave to Yahoo!Movies earlier this year. When asked about the gravity of the challenge of bringing Lincoln’s legacy to life on the big screen, Spielberg had this to say about his lifelong dream project:
“…we have a big responsibility in telling the story,” Spielberg said. “And we determined that we didn’t want to make a movie about a monument named Lincoln, we wanted to make a movie about a man named Lincoln.”