Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Drama Movie Review of ‘Lincoln’ (2012)

Movie Review of ‘Lincoln’ (2012)

A restrained historical drama, 2012’s Lincoln is a motion picture that reawakens old-school Steven Spielberg, finding the veteran filmmaker treading similar thematic ground to 1997’s Amistad. The movie was actually a long time coming, with Spielberg expressing interest in an Abraham Lincoln feature in the 1990s and with DreamWorks securing the rights to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s popular novel Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln in 2001. Working from a script by Munich screenwriter and acclaimed playwright Tony Kushner, Lincoln is a refreshing piece of work, one of the most accessible yet sophisticated political films in recent memory. It’s an intimate yet majestic film about the towering historical figure, and it manages to be respectful but not maudlin or adoring. In short, it’s a fine film, directed with a sure hand by Spielberg and superbly written by Kushner, and it features Daniel Day-Lewis who’s a heroically enthralling Lincoln.

With the tumultuous Civil War raging on throughout America, President Abraham Lincoln (Day-Lewis) seeks to heal the nation and stop the violence. Turning his attention to abolitionism, the President proposes an amendment to the Constitution which would outlaw slavery and thus diminish one of the war’s principal motivations. However, with the proposed 13th Amendment stirring up immense controversy in Washington, Lincoln faces an intense political battle to gain the votes he needs in order to get the amendment passed in Congress. Meanwhile, Lincoln’s son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) returns from Harvard with wishes to join the Union Army and serve the nation.

Lincoln is a vehemently adult motion picture. The Civil War material is sidelined, rarely letting us glimpse battlefield violence. The film is mainly chatter in dimly-lit rooms, as the primary narrative emphasis is on Lincoln’s political struggles as he works to pass the 13th Amendment. It’s a dense picture dedicated to verbiage and drama, necessitating a lenient attention span or else you’ll wind up hopelessly lost amid the whirlwind of talk and political machinations. What’s interesting about Kushner’s screenplay is that, even though it carries the all-encompassing title of Lincoln, it disposes of the typical “greatest hits” biopic structure, instead focusing on one page in the history book. A sprawling biopic might have been interesting to see, but this segment of Lincoln’s life is so well-handled and dramatically satisfying that the creative decision works. Bafflingly, though, Kushner ultimately adopts a typical biopic ending, continuing the film past its logical conclusion all the way through to the assassination. It feels forced and obligatory, not to mention the movie starts to feel overlong once the amendment is passed.

As to be expected from Mr. Spielberg, Lincoln is handsomely produced and technically dexterous, stylishly shot by Janusz Kami?ski and scored with finesse by the magnificent John Williams. The budget was a rather meagre $65 million, yet the recreation of 19th Century America is spot-on. On top of this, Kami?ski shot on 35mm film stock, which affords the picture an old-fashioned aesthetic very befitting of the subject matter. The look of the movie is superb, with naturalistic lighting and several scenes shot in gorgeous outdoor locations. Commendably, Lincoln eschews Spielberg’s trademark brand of saccharine-coated emotion; the tone is solemn throughout, and the inevitable conclusion to the story is not played for manipulative tear-wringing. Not everything works here, however, as there’s a chintzy transition towards the film’s end that feels like something from a television movie.

Liam Neeson was attached to play Lincoln for several years, but was ultimately replaced by Day-Lewis, who’s perfect as the iconic President. There’s a reason why films starring him are so few and far between – he’s a real actor’s actor, a man who carefully chooses his projects and disappears into every role he plays. On top of looking remarkably like Lincoln, Day-Lewis captures the President’s decency and vulnerability, and the gentle voice he adopts here is apparently closer to the real-life man than something more commanding. Day-Lewis is not stiff and authoritative, but instead soft-spoken and contemplative, yet always engaging. Providing solid support is Sally Field, who was nominated for an Oscar for her exceptional performance as Mary Todd Lincoln. It’s a portrayal brimming with passion, and she matches Day-Lewis every step of the movie. Also excellent is Tommy Lee Jones, a colourful scene-stealer as Thaddeus Stevens. Jones earned an Oscar nomination and it’s easy to see why. Digging further into the supporting cast, there’s David Strathairn, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Stuhlberg, and even the aforementioned Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, the family’s eldest son. There’s not a dud performance in sight.

Lincoln is not always engrossing, and there are bits and pieces that feel overly manufactured (for instance, an opening scene in which Lincoln talks to a black soldier that’s too on-the-nose), but the picture works for the most part. It presents a compelling portrait of this great man and chronicles a very important era in American history without descending into tedium. Spielberg maintains a nice sense of humour throughout, and the material feels accessible without being dumbed down. Although it’s not as good asSchindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, it represents another career high for the veteran filmmaker.

7.9/10

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