Daniel Day-Lewis is something of an unsung miracle; the man will come out of nowhere, select an unlikely role, knock it out of the park, then quietly crawl back into the ground for the next three or four years before repeating the same process. He is an underrated talent most likely due to his lack of a prolific career, somewhat like director Terrence Malick. Here, Day-Lewis teams up with one of Hollywood's most prolific men, Steven Spielberg, who is coming off a stellar 2011, where he produced both Super 8 and Transformers: Dark of the Moon and directed both The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, two acclaimed pictures.
Spielberg mans the camera in one of the most exhilarating biopics in recent memory. Lincoln is a stunning humanization and coloring-book job of American politics, shedding a light on the skepticism and grayness of the government during that time. To simplify the story, Spielberg chooses to focus on the political interworkings of our sixteenth president's cabinet rather than the Civil War itself. It shows the long, grating process of amending the United States' constitution for the thirteenth time to abolish slavery and grant African Americans equality, and how that more than one men stood at the center of the action when the process was taking place, along with how he was incorruptibly confident that ending the practice of slavery will lead to ending the war.
While titled "Lincoln," we get several other characters with a fairly surprising amount of screen time. Among them are Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing Lincoln's oldest son, Robert Todd, Tommy Lee Jones playing Thaddeus Stevens, the fiery Radical Republican leader who is strongly passionate about abolitionism, Sally Field as the president's devoted wife, Mary Todd, and David Strathairn as William Seward, the secretary of state. It could also be said that at times Abraham Lincoln is not writer Tony Kushner's (who also penned Spielberg's Munich, unseen by me) prime focus, as much as it is the backroom deals of the 1865 congress and the political battles and obstacles each member faced when their morals and ideology came forth in abolishing one of the most inhumane acts ever allowed in the United States.
Daniel Day-Lewis is mesmerizing here, never overplaying or shortchanging Lincoln in one of his most reliable roles yet. Here, he seems much more cinematic than his previous works, and seems to be smitten with Lincoln's character and persona as he embodies him for one-hundred and fifty minutes. His voice is not stereotypically deep manly, and guttural as many other works have made him out to be, but reedy and poetically satisfying, boasting not much more than historical records claim. Day-Lewis is only assisted by the wealth of invaluable talent he is surrounded by, yet some of the most powerful work of his career comes out when Lincoln is reciting stories or parables to a group of bewildered, yet fascinated individuals who recall and cherish every word the man is saying.
One requirement upon seeing Lincoln is you must commit to two and a half hours of dialog and monologues from several characters about several different topics. One challenge faced by the filmmakers that is inherently difficult to overcome is the wealth of information, history, and knowledge of the period, and we see the struggle they face at attempting to sum it all up into a structured, disciplined film. I could've seen this as an HBO ten to fifteen part miniseries, elaborating on smaller characters, extending the work of the amendment, and even showing Lincoln's impact on a still vulnerable United States. But such an action may have proved too heavy for even history buffs.
With this film, there is a lot going on in terms of subtleties and there is a plethora of weight that rests on the film's script that at times makes this a challenging picture to watch. I'm reminded of my recent adventure to see the Wachowski's Cloud Atlas, and how that film was beautiful, striking, and increasingly ambitious, but also maddening and occasionally tedious. I wouldn't so much call Lincoln maddening or tedious as I would challenging to stay in-tuned with.
But that does not mean I couldn't see thousands of people emerging pleased and delighted with the film they just saw. This is a richly detailed and unsurprisingly intellectual picture that will go down as one of the greatest cinematic endeavors to ever focus on American politics. Kushner and Spielberg have gone on to make quite possibly the best film we'll ever see about the passage of an amendment through congress and the exhausting compromises and deals that go along with the process. Finally, I must note Spielberg's top notch use of subversive elements from Lincoln's voice, to the focus of the picture from a narrative point of view, to the inevitable conclusion that still leaves us impacted and shaken.
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, and Jackie Earle Haley. Directed by: Steven Spielberg.