Coming out in the immediate aftermath of a divisive presidential election full of big dramatic gaffes and embarrassing moments on stage, Lincoln – unsurprisingly about one a President, though I forget which – might feel a little anticlimactic.
Like its release date, Lincoln takes place after a president’s reelection. The campaign is over, and while the Civil War is still raging, the end is very much in sight. With all that understood, Honest Abe turns his attention to an even more difficult task – ramming the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished of slavery, through the House of Representatives.
The whole film only concerns a Lincoln’s final few months, swerving from being the full-on biopic about his whole life that you might be expecting. But defying those expectations do a lot in Lincoln‘s favor – we’ve all seen plenty of those kinds of biopics before, in fact we just got one about Lincoln five months ago (yes, that’s this review’s obligatory reference to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).
That allows Lincoln to skip over the traditional beats and observe the historical figure in a light we might not be used to.
Lincoln is played by Daniel-Day Lewis, and as if it needs to be said of Day-Lewis in any of his rolls, he’s just incredible. Instead of the stoic, bony president we’ve all imagined, Day-Lewis plays him as a glowing presence that shares more in common with his young son than with any of the politicians that surround him.
Whenever a tangent presents itself, the President can’t help but go on and tell an inspiring story that he can relate to. It’s a cheesy way to tell the story, but Day-Lewis is a fantastic story teller, and the actual moments never feels as hokey as the convention does.
But the best scene is one in which Lincoln listens to the stories of others. After a cold open that shows war not as a glorious undertaking but as a dirty failure of passion, two men tell their story while Men work quietly in a wet blue background. For a while, Lincoln feels like a silent eavesdropper in the middle of the most passionate period in United States History told with the confidence of an arthouse director.
Lincoln never reaches that high again, but it never sinks to any lows either. This is a long-gestating project from Steven Spielberg, so it’s clearly above being a story-of-the-week that you’d watch for class in High School. Spielberg brings some real visual muscle in as well, even though the film functions as a long series of meetings. This feels like a movie when it would read like a transcript on the page.
He can’t help but dip into some sillier moments that play too big, like with a souse of a James Spader character, playing his own take on Jack Sparrow here. And there are too many prime time players in the cast, to the point that it’s almost comedic to see another well-respected and known actor revealed with a ridiculous suit one shot after another.
Spielberg definitely keeps this thing fairly sentimental. But as he proved with the eagerly over-hated War Horse, sentimentality is something the man does well – he directed E.T., for goodness sake.
Lincoln isn’t the cinematic dream of days-past that War Horse was though, and it’s hard to see Lincoln sticking out in the Steve’s filmography down the line – it feels a lot like Amistad, both in content and quality. But even if it’s not much more than a warm history lesson with quality, meaty performances, that may be all that it needs to be.