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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Steven Spielberg

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Stratham, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Released: 25 January 2013 (UK) 16th November 2012 (US)

When coming from a generation where director Steven Spielberg has already been placed upon a pedestal as an iconic director it is hard to look at anything the guy does with anything less than high expectations. While other times it will naturally feel as if the man is skating by on his reputation rather than his abilities that could have easily come to a halt once reaching such a status. I have always wondered about this, wondered if Spielberg had what it takes to continue walking his line between serious films and blockbuster money-makers while maintaining his credibility with the critics and keeping the general public intrigued no matter what type of project he chose to take on next. In the time since I began seriously loving films (say, the last ten years) the director has created two genuinely great films and a slew of others that are very good. One thing was ultimately clear, these movies were made by a filmmaker who knew what he wanted and no matter the genre or the size has the power to make you feel something, an inherent reaction to what is happening on screen. While I have always been a fan of Spielberg and of course have wrestled with what some of his films might have become were they made by a less established name, none of this came into consideration when reflecting upon Lincoln many hours after the credits rolled. A film that has been in the works for over fifteen years, it is simply rewarding to see this work finally come to fruition. An intense and stirring look behind closed doors that doesn’t cover Lincoln from birth to death but instead focuses on a small window in his life that very well defines why the man still commands an iconic status today.

Based on only a portion of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s novel Team of Rivals, Spielberg’s film merely focuses on the last four months of the sixteenth president’s life. The crucial months in our nations history that led to ending the civil war and ensuring that the thirteenth amendment was passed in order to end slavery in the country. Going into Lincoln, if you expect a sprawling epic that shows the president suffering after his mothers death, his early days as a lawyer and a montage of him campaigning for the presidency you will be slightly let down to find none of that included here, but instead, once you overcome your need for fast action and recognizable bits from your history lessons you can settle in and appreciate the attention to detail, the wonderful performances littered throughout every inch of the film and the narrative that is compelling no matter if we know how it is going to end or not. It is funny to note in my screening of the film you could hear several people giddy with anticipation as the votes were taken. Not to say they were unaware of what the outcome was, but instead I’d like to see it more as a tribute to how well Spielberg and his editors paced the revealing of such a deciding vote. It is all very authentic in the way it is presented and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Munich) who has more experience as a playwright than a screenwriter is able to develop these situations, these speeches, these meetings as more than people simply talking back and forth, but with such language, such meaning to their perfectly worded dialogue that gets across a point to perfect effect rather than having to contemplate over the page or struggle to compose a specific point, with such ease that we become entangled in the complications of what it will take to get done what needs be. It is, to make the easy comparison, as if watching a 19th century version of The West Wing.

Penning such a precise script and delivering a worthy portrait of a man that makes its audience understand the reasoning he remains such a pillar, an icon for this country today is hard enough, but to be given the task of casting those roles and bringing such events to life is another complication all its own. It was clear from the moment Daniel Day-Lewis accepted the role though that this would be a piece of refined art, not the obligatory moments materialized for the screen, but a real look at what made up the actual man that was Abraham Lincoln. Day-Lewis, who many consider our greatest living actor today, earns that reputation by fully embodying the roles he invests in. What is obvious more than anything here is that the man has completely immersed himself in Lincoln. He has come to feel as if he really knew him, understood him, and most of all enjoyed his company. As if smitten with the incarnation of Lincoln that he has formed in his head Day-Lewis conveys the president as a man willing to step back and look at the bigger scope of things happening. Reeling from the death of a child, comforting a needy wife, nurturing a young son and teaching his eldest while conflicted with his own wants and needs as a parent only enforce the decisions he makes as president to be conveyed in what are the best ways to get a point across, that is, until it comes down to the wire. Day-Lewis allows us to step inside the process and see in detail every aspect of what he is going through, how he is like us in his domestic issues, but even more how difficult it would be to balance these with leading a nation. We come to know the man, and through Day-Lewis’s performance we come to believe we are actually watching the president and come to admire him for his simplicity that he is often required to translate to his cabinet with complexity so that they may comprehend his authority.

Day-Lewis is surrounded by recognizable faces as well, each of which earn their moments on screen whether beside Mr. Lincoln or not. It is as if playing a who’s who guessing game of credible actors filling out the roster of important roles that were either for or against supporting Lincoln’s positions in his quest to abolish slavery and end the war. As his right hand man David Strathairn plays William Seward, Lincoln’s loyal secretary of state. In a moving performance, and a slightly unexpected one Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln with a pained and fragile exterior broken by the struggles of losing a child and the fear of losing more. Actors that would otherwise carry entire films seem more than happy to show up for a single scene here. Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears as Robert Lincoln in only a few scenes, but allows his always welcome presence to be known as do the likes of Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris and Hal Holbrook. Tommy Lee Jones gives a performance worthy of a supporting actor nod in his role as radical member of Lincoln’s party Thaddeus Stevens who proudly wears his horrible wig. The almost three-stooge like quality of the trio of James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson should also be applauded, especially Spader who, as W.N. Bilbo, leads the charge to recruit more votes for the thirteenth amendment with a drunken, exhausted effort that is made well by his great comedic beats. It is also worth noting that Michael Stuhlbarg shows up in a few scenes here and continues to prove why he is one of todays most underrated actors.

It is one thing to read a history lesson, but it is something completely different when bringing that to full flesh and blood life while re-creating the layers of complexity that make truth so compelling. Spielberg, as a director, is always keen to leave many familiar marks on his work, but in many ways Lincoln is as much a Spielberg film as it is a film about George Washington. The director seems to have taken a note from his subject and stepped back, subverting our expectations for the film but also making us watch all the closer, leaning into the material and letting it take us with it as it goes on this interesting and entertaining tour through politics. This avenue, rather than having the intricate camera work, the swelling music as distractions is gone in the form of something quite simple, but also reassuring in that the director has such faith in his material, in his collaborators that he could allow the story and its characters to breathe without having to worry what other factors might decide their representation on screen or alter the outcome of the final product. The film captures the struggle of Lincoln and his situation in his final months and paints a beautiful portrait of a man that is both patient in its execution and sharp in its every scene. There are moments that drag and a struggle in finding its footing near the end, but overall it is hard to ignore the care that has gone into the film. There is nothing more rewarding for an audience member than knowing the makers are just, if not more, in love with the subject they are talking about than you are. You know care is taken, you feel it safe in the hands of these people and there is nothing more true that could be said about Day-Lewis and Spielberg concerning Lincoln. It is a wonderful testament to both mens talent.

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