'Lincoln' (2012) Movie Review

Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln
Photo: Dreamworks Pictures

Steven Spielberg can't help but be sentimental and he has a hard time not making his presence as a director known. It's this signature over-sentimentality and forceful nature of his storytelling that can often get in the way of the story he's trying to tell. Rather than letting the characters and narrative guide the audience through his films, he feels it's necessary to get it all out on the table early and often. Thankfully, with Lincoln he has taken a step back and almost had no choice but to do so once he hired what may be today's greatest living actor in Daniel Day-Lewis to play Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States.

Grade: B+

Lincoln"Lincoln" is a DreamWorks Pictures release, directed by Steven Spielberg and is rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language. The running time is .

The cast includes Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McGill, Joseph Cross, Gloria Reuben, David Warshofsky, David Strathairn, Walt Goggins, Lee Pace, Jackie Earle Haley, David Oyelowo, Jared Harris, Adam Driver and Colman Domingo.

Casting Day-Lewis was our first sign we were in for a stunning character drama and the cast surrounding him all but assured that. Sally Field stars as Mary Todd Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens; Lee Pace gives a strong performance as Fernando Wood, Democratic member of Congress leading the opposition against Lincoln's proposal for the 13th Ammendment; James Spader is phenomenally entertaining as one of Lincoln's Democratic operatives W.N. Bilbo; and Gloria Reuben stands out playing Mary Todd's dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley.

This selection of names is just a handful of the talent collaborating to bring this drama to life, and I'll be getting to more soon enough.

Tony Kushner, working in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln", penned a screenplay with very much the same flavor as one from Aaron Sorkin. You can, however, notice Kushner's playwright roots as this is a far more lyrical and less biting feature than you'd expect from the likes of Sorkin, yet it's not without a fair amount of clever wit and welcomed comedic beats, preventing it from becoming an overly political slog.

What struck me most about Kushner's work here is his ability to dramatize meetings and moments, which, by necessity, required imagination. This triumph of will came off as none too melodramatic, while still achieving a sense of authenticity. Lincoln's pursuit to abolish slavery and ratify the 13th Amendment is met with a critical eye, even from some within his own camp as many questioned whether he was avoiding peace talks with the South in an attempt to push through his agenda, and perhaps doing so by questionable means. There's a political grey area within the process and perhaps there's no better time than now to look upon it and wonder if skirting the law to push through law we know to be "right" is the "right" thing to do.

Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln is an acting revelation. Prior to the film's release many questioned his choice to present Lincoln with a soft-spoken tone of voice and weary slouch. For most, Lincoln is viewed through the perceived lens of history as a man bigger than life, but here he's presented as nothing more than a man. Day-Lewis, in conjunction with Kushner's screenplay, offer up a not-so-perfect father (a Spielberg theme his films have a hard time getting away from), a man who recognizes his power, a storyteller, husband and passionate politician presiding over the bloodiest war in U.S. history. To present him any other way than seen here would be to make both his faults and accomplishments as a human unbelievable.

Some may question the overall veracity of the film's narrative (and you'd be right to do so with any piece of historical drama), but a clear effort was made to present Lincoln as a conflicted President faced with impossible odds that managed to push through one of the most important pieces of legislation our country has ever known. There's a reason he's looked upon as a hero and a reason people expected a larger-than-life portrayal, but no man is without his flaws and for all the honorable qualities Abraham Lincoln had, Lincoln does not presume to present him as wholly perfect.

Across the board the supporting cast is strong. Sally Field presents Mary Todd Lincoln with every measure of vigor, neurosis and concern as a mother who's already lost a son, another (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that wants to enlist and a husband that has to hide his human tendencies so as to lead a nation. David Strathairn plays Secretary of State William Seward with a confident air as he's often wrapped in smoke from his cigar during backroom conversations between Lincoln and his hopeful constituents.

James Spader is wonderful as W.N. Bilbo, a lobbyist called in by Seward to help acquire votes to help pass the 13th Amendment. Carrying more weight than we're used to seeing, Spader, alongside John Hawkes as Robert Latham, provide the view of the process from the battlegrounds as the frontline battle is waged in the House. Lee Pace spearheads the Democrats with gusto and verve while Tommy Lee Jones delivers a stellar performance as Thaddeus Stevens, a quick tempered Republican leader from Pennsylvania who spent much of his political career battling slavery. He wears his emotion on his sleeve and, in the end, offers one of the most rousing moments of the entire feature.

Lincoln, however, isn't without a few missteps, many of which could have been excised, creating a much tighter narrative and even faster paced feature that somehow manages to create tension up until the end even though you know every which way the story is going to turn.

In large part, Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance as Lincoln's son Robert could have been cut down dramatically if not entirely. As I noted, Spielberg loves to play up father-son drama in his features and he doesn't avoid the opportunity here, but it doesn't really add much to the story and in fact slows it down at times, feeling a little ham-fisted.

The production design is convincing all around, but every so often the cold and dreary nature of Janusz Kaminski's cinematography could have been brightened up a bit as even blue skies carry a greyish hue and Spielberg can't resist the opportunity to position his actors in front of windows and nearly blind the audience with blasts of white light.

One area I was extraordinarily happy to see dialed back was with the score. Spielberg and John Williams have been together forever and created some of the most memorable scores to date, and while Williams' work here is very much recognizable it plays more in line with the film rather than trampling all over it. Spielberg, for the most part, allows his actors and story to garner most of the attention, while stepping aside and removing his patented wide-eyed close ups and camera moves and letting the score simmer in the background rather than taking over the scene.

Lincoln, flaws and all, is a wonderful film filled with the passion that makes America great and the scars that make our political process questionable. Spielberg and his team don't set out to paint a picture of a perfect man, but a man that strove to make a country better and those that joined him and opposed him in the process. It's this presentation that makes it such an enjoyable film. Our 16th President isn't made to look like a superhero, but a man that seized an opportunity to do something great and the strengthening of a nation that came as a result.


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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/G-Man/ G-Man

    May be the first time this year I'm really excited for two movies to be released in the same weekend with this and Skyfall. Can't wait.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Mv11391/ Michael

    Glad u liked it, Brad. I'm one of the few Spielberg fans on here. So yeah, i'm glad u liked it.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Mv11391/ Michael

      Question: I saw your updated Oscar predictions earlier and you swapped both Tommy Lee Jones with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, did you like Jones performance more than Hoffman's, Brad?

  • Winchester

    Well, I know Brad and Laremy as well haven't been keen on Spielberg and his output lately so I have no reason to presume there is praise here merely for the sake of it, so I'm looking forward to this actually.

    Do you genuinely feel Day Lewis has the upper hand now in the Oscar race? Assuming the nomination of course.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      Yes, hard to imagine him losing unless Jackman dominates in Les Mis.

      • Winchester

        Although Jackman isn't one of your picks even for a nomination. Are you anticipating that changing? I don't know when press screenings of Les Miserables are expected mind.

  • http://www.rabidpictures.com Yaz

    Might wait a bit to catch this one... Not a fan of period pieces or politics or history. This weekend is Bond. But aesthetically this film looks wonderful and Day-Lewis is always a marvel.


    Is it just me or do others think Sally Field is a little too old to pay Mary Todd Lincoln? She's 66.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/JDub/ John Wood

      It's just you. :)

      When male actors out-age their onscreen wives by decades, no one ever complains, or really even makes note of it. It's an actor playing a part.

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/ElFrostilico/ El Frostilico

        Although still technically true, as Field is nearly 20 years older than Mrs. Lincoln was during the events that the film covers.

      • Torryz

        No complaints from me I just thought it was unusual casting.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/kimjyn/ kimjyn

      Actually, think about the life of a women, or man, in the 1860's--life expectancy was shorter, people aged faster because life was so much harsher than today. Mrs. Lincoln probably felt 20 years older, and she was really mentally ill. She bore four sons--two had already died before the end of the Civil War (only the one son is mentioned in the movie), and she would lose her third son, Todd, at the age of 18 years.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/HarryFuertes/ Harry Fuertes

    Glad to see Spielberg hasn't truly lost his touch after the disasters that were War Horse and Tintin.

    • bill

      Thought those were both good..

      • Winchester

        I've not seen War Horse yet (although the rental disc is sitting on my shelf just now) but Tintin was in no way a disaster. Not even close. It might be one everyone enjoyed.............but that's par for the course.

        • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Mv11391/ Michael

          Tintin as I said is bad with repeated viewings, it's good only on first watch. I saw it the 2nd time on DVD and...just unbelievable. Can't believe it doesn't hold up at all especially when I enjoyed it the first time.

          • Winchester

            I've watched it a few times and I don't agree it doesn't hold up on more than one watch personally.

            • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Mv11391/ Michael

              And that's fine, I just felt didn't enjoy it as much as I did the first time around. I do not know why since i'm a Spielberg fan, i'll try again with this one to see what went wrong second time around.

  • http://anonynoustheatre3000.blogspot.com.au/ Neutral3

    Brad, from reading all your reviews, why do you take so much concern on storytelling and narrative? It seems like every problem you have with a film you reviewed have something to do with the plot. E.g. - in Seven Psychopaths, you've say you liked it more if it has more narrative when it's a black comedy and is meant to deliver jokes. Is the plot really important in the movie than the acting, direction and screenwriting?

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/ Brad Brevet

      For me, yes, the story is everything. There are always exceptions -- Hanna is one off the top of my head -- but for the most part, yes.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Criterion10/ Criterion10

    Good to see that Spielberg is back on track. I'll definitely be seeing this one when it comes out.

  • Susan

    I liked War Horse. There, I said it.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Mv11391/ Michael

      And u shouldn't feel embarrassed by saying it haha. I liked War Horse too. I enjoyed Tintin the first time I saw it but it's not really good with repeated viewings.

    • Chris138

      I liked it as well. It's not a great Spielberg film but I thought it was good nonetheless.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/GothamCity151/ GothamCity151

    Had a chance to see this tonight and thought it was Spielberg's best in a long while. I probably would have cut the last five or so minutes (which I won't say why), but other than that, the writing is impeccable and the actors do wonders with it. It's really difficult to see anyone else winning that Oscar besides Day-Lewis. He's giving everyone an acting lesson here.

  • Alex Krajci

    Steven Spielberg Is My Favorite Film Director And John Williams Is My Favorite Film Composer.

  • MajorFilmFan

    Will DEFFINATELY be seeing this when it goes into wide release next Friday! I don't know the last time I've been so excited for a trio of movies with this, Skyfall and The Hobbit. I greatly enjoyed War Horse.

  • Newbourne

    War Horse was awful. So was Tintin. I'm not excited about this one, but I'll see it.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Xarnis/ Xarnis

    I enjoyed War Horse a bit, ( 3 out of 5), but I'm glad to see that Spielberg is back to making stellar films. Spielberg is one of my favorite directors, and I love history, so I think I'll like this one quite a bit.

  • Ritesh Chhabra

    Spielberg reminds everyone he is still a great director..

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/chewbaca38/ chewbaca38

    Just saw it. Thought it was all great except the Levitt stuff which felt really shoehorned in.

  • Yunus

    Waiting to watch Lincoln. I totally agree Daniel day Lewis is a real marvel. He is without doubt the greatest actor.be it method or anything. I still am amazed with what he had done in there will be blood. Seriously can any really compare with him I mean the whole lot.