Long-regarded as one of America's greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln was many things: A shrewd politician, a hardworking family man and a vocal proponent of passing an anti-slavery bill.
The gradual build-up to director Steven Spielberg's opus has helped revive public discussions on Lincoln outside of the usual historical circles. Yet, few films have ever ventured to portray the much-revered president on the silver screen and, if anyone were to succeed in the role, it would be celebrated British actor Daniel Day-Lewis. And, while the always-reliable Day-Lewis commands the screen with his award-worthy performance, Lincoln may ultimately leave some viewers scratching their heads.
Spielberg's Lincoln chronicles the last four months of the titular hero's life, from January to April 1865. The action takes place in Washington, as the President struggles to bring an end the Civil War raging throughout the nation. Lincoln puts most of his time and energy into passing an amendment to abolish slavery, a contentious issue that proves divisive within the House of Representatives.
In the moments where the script calls for levity, Lincoln enlists the help of three affable Republican "thugs" (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson, all excellent) to convince the remaining Democrats who are still on the fence over the anti-slavery act to come back with a verdict in support of the bill.
However, considering the historic significance of America's 16th President of the United States, it's somewhat perplexing as to why Spielberg gets off to a slow start in the early going. The first hour is filled with awkward exposition as the script calls for too many heavy-handed conversations that quibble over the semantics of passing a bill. Periods of long, drawn-out speeches on constitutional law and negotiating peace slow the momentum to a standstill.
The screenplay, by Tony Kushner, neglects to delve deeper into the man behind the iconic top hat and beard. There are even instances where, despite Day-Lewis' mesmerizing performance, Lincoln recedes into the background. When we do get glimpses of his private family life they are fleeting — especially frustrating considering certain scenes with his wife Mary (Sally Field) hint at a fascinating, albeit unhappy, marriage. Even a subplot involving his eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is ultimately discarded in favour of the unending parade of secondary characters.
But where Lincoln ultimately falls short is in its hazy narrative. Is this a biopic on the man behind the legend or a docudrama on the abolishment of slavery in the United States?
Daniel Day-Lewis exudes a confidence in his craft rarely seen in actors working today. Although the passage of time prevents us from knowing exactly how Lincoln spoke and acted towards his colleagues and family, Day-Lewis imbues his metaphor-spouting Lincoln with a gentleness that defies his reputation as a commanding leader. Speaking in soft-spoken cadences that rarely rise above a whisper, Day-Lewis' Lincoln walks with shoulders so stooped that they appear to carry the entire weight of the world. He has the uncanny ability to transport you in time and make you believe that the person you are watching on the silver screen is the real person — as opposed to a carefully crafted reconstruction. It's a powerful — and beautifully subdued — performance from an artist who many would argue is a gift to acting.
The supporting cast is a revolving door of familiar faces from Jackie Earle Haley (as Alexander Stephens) to David Strathairn (as Secretary of State William Seward). But it's Tommy Lee Jones as Pennsylvania rep Thaddeus Stevens that is the standout — and potentially one of the early contenders for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Grizzled and peevish, Jones unleashes passionate pleas in defense of Lincoln's anti-slavery bill — much to the chagrin of Democratic pro-slavery speaker Fernando Wood (Lee Pace).
Lincoln is not as epic or sentimental as one would come to expect from Spielberg — it's easily the director's most restrained work to date.
While the film has its powerful moments — many of which take place in the House of Representatives — Lincoln, the man, ultimately gets lost within Lincoln.
FINAL GRADE: C+