Movie Review: "Lincoln"
Published: Monday, November 19, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 19, 2012 23:11
Too many biographical films suffer from a lack of balance. The spectrum is too wide, for example, or too many creative liberties are taken in telling the tale. “Lincoln,” however, manages to reel in all the loose ends and create a solid feature, running for just a little over two hours.
Director Steven Spielberg is aided by an excellent crew, including cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams and editor Michael Kahn. The group is responsible for several of Spielberg’s best-known films, including “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List.” The cast is equally impressive, including Daniel Day-Lewis (“There Will Be Blood”) as former president Abraham Lincoln in one of his best roles yet. Alongside Day-Lewis star Tommy Lee Jones (“No Country for Old Men”), Jackie Earle Haley (“Watchmen”), Sally Field (“Forrest Gump”) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“The Dark Knight Rises”).
The production group, no matter how ambitious, does not attempt to create a biography of the president’s life. Instead, it tells the story of the last four months of Lincoln’s life, focusing on his fight to add the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and abolish slavery. This limit of scope allows the film to take a truly close look at Lincoln not as an American symbol, but as a man.
Day-Lewis depicts the president as a wise but imperfect individual—he argues with his wife and does not have the strongest relationship with his oldest son. He speaks in a normal voice, perhaps a bit slow and thoughtful, and not in the booming and decisive tone of a legendary leader. He struggles to make decisions as he weighs the benefits and downfalls of tough choices. Unlike his portrayal in too many Civil War films, Lincoln was not the embodiment of liberty or the voice of American freedom personified—he was just an intelligent man.
Indeed, that is where the movie shines. It further distances itself from the traditional Civil War movie by creating a product that does not have a lot of battlefield action. In fact, the only war scene in “Lincoln” was a short segment at the very beginning. The true battle, as depicted by the film, was fought in the courtroom. The entertainment provided by the movie was based on clever writing and exceptional wit, reminiscent of the 1957 classic, “12 Angry Men.”
The art direction only strengthens an already solid film. Again, Spielberg does not try to exaggerate the look or feel of the time. The setting feels real with beautiful tones and an incredible use of lighting, especially at night in the White House. The costume design likewise calls for admiration. The president and first lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) are not shown as royalty, but as family. The combination creates an outstanding feel of intimacy and authenticity.
This tone, demonstrated effectively in writing, art direction and acting, is truly the foremost quality of “Lincoln.” One paramount scene that establishes this tone is included toward the beginning of the film, and it truly captures the consistent quality of the rest of the feature. Simple and elegant, the scene shows the president, tired after a day of work, walking up to his child who is sleeping by the fireplace. Lincoln lays down next to his son, gazes at him lovingly and shifts the boy onto his tired back and carries him up to his bed.
“Lincoln” is not just for history buffs. It is for anyone interested in a story undiluted by gimmicks or needless scenes. The film may not be a sitting-on-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller, but it manages to grab onto and keep the attention of viewers through an intelligent and honest look at one of America’s most legendary figures.