The greatest measure of the 19th century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.
I’ll get this out of the way: Lincoln is a film sure to be handed trophies left and right come awards season. And it is very easily the frontrunner for some major awards at the Oscars — Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor chief among them. I can’t deny that this is a movie that the Academy and many, many critics will and have eaten up. But that doesn’t automatically make it great. I think it’s good, at best, and yet I found it quite boring at times.
The setup is this: President Lincoln’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) first term as commander-in-chief has ended, and upon re-election, he is still faced with numerous issues, primarily the ongoing Civil War and the controversial issue of abolition. This is the story of the passage of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution, a piece of legislation “passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.” And that man is Lincoln, of course.
Slavery was, no doubt, a controversial issue, and the issue came to a head at the beginning of Lincoln’s second term as President of the United States. Another thing we know is that the 13th Amendment was, in fact, passed, and slavery was abolished. A long time later, African-Americans were finally granted their share of other freedoms, with the help of Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. But the movement began with the 13th Amendment, the passage of which is the sole focus of Steven Spielberg’s film.
Writer Tony Kushner has done a fair enough job bringing this story to the screen, and it is quite interesting at times, but there are times during it that I felt bored. After the opening 15 minutes of the film, the next hour or so seemed to pass very slowly. Here we learn about Honest Abe’s marriage to Mary Todd (Sally Field) and his relationship with his sons, and perhaps that’s what made it so dull for me — Spielberg is known for over-dramatizing family issues, particular between father and son, and it really seemed to bog the film down a bit.
The latter half of the film further explores the president’s relationship with his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) while also trying to maintain a focus on the events leading up to the House of Representatives’ vote on the amendment, and frankly, those parts with Robert should have been excised in favor of the main story, that of the aforementioned amendment.
That’s not to say this is a terrible film, though. In fact, I found the bits dealing with the rallying up of votes to be great, and Kushner has done in excellent job in dramatizing various meetings both between Lincoln and his staff as well as within the U.S. Congress. A great deal of care was taken to ensure the weight of these moments, and the last 30 minutes or so are really very good.
The acting, as well, is quite great. Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Honest Abe, one of the most heralded Americans of all-time and a true patriot, is tremendous. He is very much deserving of all the praise he has received and will continue to receive. And Tommy Lee Jones, as Thaddeus Stevens, is as good as he’s been in, well, a very, very long time. He and Day-Lewis are asked to portray a wide range of emotions, and their talents are on full display. They even mix in their fair share of wit, which was much appreciated, given the weight of the issues presented in the film.
Good too was James Spader in the role of lobbyist W.N. Bilbo, a man who helps Lincoln acquire votes for the passage of the 13th Amendment. Spader’s acting here reminds me of his days on the much-moved-around ABC show “Boston Legal,” a TV series that I miss, namely for the acting of Spader. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him in something worth watching, and while I didn’t love Lincoln, I very much liked seeing Spader on top of his game yet again.
But alas, I didn’t find this film as enjoyable as I had hoped. It’s not really for a lack of execution so much as I think Spielberg just spends too much time focusing on other things that aren’t at the forefront of the story. But to each his or her own. Like it or not, people, this is your current Best Picture frontrunner.
In all, Lincoln is a fair portrait of a great American, played strongly by Daniel Day-Lewis and directed well enough by Steven Spielberg. It gets the job done, I suppose, though I do think it suffers from its own share of issues.