I wasn’t a fan of War Horse when it came out. I’m sorry, I know that mine is a minority opinion, but it’s the truth. I felt that the film was poorly written, with an overbearingly saccharine tone and a picaresque structure that actively worked against the film. Fortunately, for those who liked or disliked it, that movie was just a warm-up.
It should have been obvious, really. After all, Steven Spielberg has been preparing to make an Abraham Lincoln biopic ever since Dreamworks acquired the film rights to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” and that was clear back in 2001. Liam Neeson was set to play the title role for the longest time, and it still boggles my mind that a dramatic Oscar-bait period biopic couldn’t get made by the director and star of Schindler’s List.
Then again, this is very difficult material to adapt. The subject was a fascinating man, with a long and compelling life story. Moreover, he lived in a remarkably complex time, when so many issues were so controversial that politics drove the country to split itself apart. Trying to adequately portray such a remarkable man and the intricate problems he faced would be impossible with a cradle-to-grave biopic, especially if running time is a factor. Just ask Timur Bekmambetov. Better yet, ask the filmmakers behind The Iron Lady.
Luckily, Spielberg finally came up with a workable approach to the story (with considerable help from Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner on screenwriting duties) and brought Lincoln to the screen. Instead of telling the entire life story of our sixteenth president, the film focuses entirely on the last four months of his life. More specifically, it focuses on his attempts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which would abolish slavery in the United States. The amendment has already passed the Senate, but now Lincoln has to coax a two-thirds majority vote from the House of Representatives. Not an easy task.
However, Lincoln has just been re-elected to his second term and a fresh batch of congressmen have been elected to Capitol Hill as well. Plus, the entire country has grown weary of the Civil War — now in its fourth year — and there’s a chance that freeing the slaves might encourage a Confederate surrender. It’s the perfect time to take such a risky move, but there’s a catch: The Confederates are getting tired of the war as well. The south is mulling the possibility of surrender and Lincoln can’t get the necessary votes unless he exhausts all other options for ending the war, but Congress’ incentives for passing the amendment vanish as soon as the war ends.
In summary, Lincoln has to choose between ending the war or ending slavery. He can stop the war that’s already claimed more American lives than any other in history, or he can free untold thousands of people and their descendants from bondage. It’s not an easy choice, and all of Lincoln’s advisers say he can’t have it both ways, but we watch Lincoln do his damnedest to get both done anyway.
The choice to set this movie in the waning years of Lincoln’s life was a brilliant one. For one thing, it doesn’t prohibit the film from examining the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s past as a lawyer in Illinois, the death of his son, or any other notable events in Lincoln’s life. Though the film never shows these events onscreen, we do get to see the characters recall and reflect upon them. This way, the movie can shift its focus toward the relevance and the impact of such moments in Lincoln’s life, as well as how they affected Lincoln at this late stage in his life. That was a very clever way to go about things.
Far more importantly, this particular battle shows Lincoln in his element. This was the ideal case to show the leadership and the unique gift for compromise that made Lincoln such a powerful and fondly-remembered Commander in Chief. Lincoln’s entire presidency was defined by his incredible skill at managing two violently opposing sides of an issue in such a way that he could pacify both long enough to get his agenda done. This film takes great pains to describe the many challenges Lincoln had to deal with, and precisely how he took such risks to solve them in such a deft manner.
That said, the film spends a lot of time to explore Lincoln as a character outside the presidency. Here, again, the decision to set the movie shortly before his death pays dividends. This allows the film to show a more tired and world-weary Lincoln, with the added ironic tragedy of knowing that his violent death is imminent.
(Side note: Though we see everything leading up to and after Lincoln’s shooting, the assassination itself takes place off-camera. Apparently, Spielberg thought it might come off as exploitation and had already been done to death anyway.)
We also get to see Lincoln’s struggles as a father, particularly in his attempts to stop his son, Robert Todd Lincoln, from enlisting in the Union Army. Mary Todd Lincoln’s questionable mental health and the conflicts with her husband regarding their dead son also play a part. Best of all, the film establishes Lincoln as a clever and witty man with a great sense of humor, who had a story or a joke for any occasion.
I was very sorry to see Neeson drop out of this project. He’s an incredible actor and I wish I could’ve seen his portrayal of Lincoln (though for all I know, maybe we will someday). Still, as great an actor as he is, casting Daniel Day-Lewis in his place is definitely what I’d call “trading up.” Stephen Colbert said as much in jest recently, but the Academy really should just make a statuette shaped like Day-Lewis and give it to him right now. I could go on and on about the intensity or the weariness that he brings to the role, but that isn’t what impressed me most about Day-Lewis’ work here. What really impressed me is that when Lincoln went on one of his rambling stories in this film, I found myself hanging on every word.
Daniel Day-Lewis had enough charm and charisma to remind the audience why Lincoln was one of the greatest orators this country ever heard. For that alone, I’m ready to call this the best leading actor performance of the year. If any performance next month comes along to top his, I will be pleased and amazed.
Of course, Daniel Day-Lewis is hardly the only good actor in this stellar cast. We also get to see some incredible work from Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lee Pace, Jackie Earle Haley, David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jared Harris, and a whole shit-ton of other talented actors besides. Not only do all of these actors turn in wonderful work, but the screenplay somehow managed to give nearly everyone in the cast at least one great moment to shine. Sure, some of them were underutilized — I wish I could’ve seen more of Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, for example — but they all got at least one scene to play at the Oscars. And really, that’s what it comes down to.
It’s patently obvious that this film was made for Academy voters. It’s Oscar-bait, plain and simple. That said, this film is the best kind of Oscar-bait: The kind that can be appreciated by people who don’t remotely care about which film wins Best Picture. Not only is the cast extraordinary, but Spielberg is remarkably on point and Kushner’s screenplay is fantastic. The drama is wonderful, the comic relief is very funny, and the political commentary is very relevant without being too preachy on any one point.
Additionally, Spielberg gets multiple scenes to remind us that he can shoot a war movie as well as anyone else in the business. Together with returning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and lifelong editor Michael Kahn, Spielberg has made a movie that looks damned fine. Hell, Kahn’s editing is so fantastic that he managed to make a congressional roll call look interesting.
As for the score… well, it’s okay. Nothing about it was particularly memorable, and too much of the music seemed to blend into the background. Then again, so much of the film is occupied by long speeches delivered with all the emotion and nuance that could be mustered by a cast of world-class actors, so maybe it was best for the score to stay out of the way. Plus, it’s John Williams. The guy could pound random notes on a keyboard and somehow, it would still sound better than 90 percent of all the other soundtracks released this year.
Lincoln has already earned a great deal of critical acclaim, and all of it is well-earned. I’m not completely sure it’s good enough to win Best Picture, but I’m damn sure it’s good enough for a nomination. The film also features a whole cast of actors good enough for nominations, and Daniel Day-Lewis should start rehearsing his acceptance speech immediately. There’s no denying that this film is Oscar-bait, but it’s genuinely good enough to earn every Oscar it gets.
All awards buzz aside, this movie serves incredibly well as a portrait of the sixteenth president. All of Lincoln’s emotional burdens are on display, in addition to all the political nuances and complexities of the time. I strongly recommend seeing this one as soon as possible.