- Rated PG-13
All photos © Touchstone Pictures
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
teven Spielberg has been trying to make a movie about Abraham Lincoln for so long that it seemed like it might never happen. But after years mired in development, Spielberg’s passion project has finally seen the light of day, albeit with a different actor in the title role. Though Daniel Day-Lewis is certainly no slouch, the prospect of Liam Neeson reteaming with his “Schindler’s List” director was a lot more exciting. Nevertheless, Day-Lewis proves himself a more than adequate replacement to play the 16th President, commanding the screen with a vigor that combats the film's languid pace.
Though there’s a lot of story to tell in Lincoln’s life, the movie focuses on his final four months in office as he works to end the Civil War that’s already claimed countless lives, but not before he passes an amendment that will outlaw slavery for good. When he learns that the war can be won in a matter of weeks after an assault on Wilmington, North Carolina, Lincoln decides to delay peace talks with the South in fear that if the war ends, his fellow constituents won’t be quite so eager to outlaw slavery. Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) leads the fight for Lincoln’s proposed amendment against the pro-slavery Democrats, while Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) hires a trio of men (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) to convince/bribe the undecided Democrats in order to get the required majority vote to pass the amendment.
Though he doesn't act very often these days, Daniel Day-Lewis rarely disappoints, and he continues that excellent record here. His Lincoln is stubborn and stoic, but also quite witty when the mood permits, and though it’s definitely worthy of an Oscar nomination, it doesn’t have the wow factor that you normally see in an award-winning performance. Still, the acting is top-notch all around, from bigger roles like Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field (who only gets a few moments to shine as Mary Todd Lincoln, but makes the most of every one), to supporting players like David Strathairn, Jackie Earle Hayley (as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens) and James Spader. The only actor whose talents feel wasted is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, in an otherwise forgettable subplot meant to create conflict within the Lincoln household.
The family drama wasn’t really necessary when Spielberg already had plenty of good material between the backroom meetings with Lincoln and his cabinet, and the cross-party squabbling in the House of Representatives, and it only highlights the lack of self-discipline typically on display in his movies. Though the more bureaucratic scenes drag on for too long, they’re a big part of what “Lincoln” is all about – namely, the complex politics involved in abolishing slavery – and are some of the film’s best moments. You might even learn a thing or two that's not in your everyday textbook, although the veracity of those details is obviously up for debate. “Lincoln” does get a little too caught up in the intricacies of the political process at times, but it's an engaging behind the scenes look at one of the country’s most historic moments that succeeds due to its ensemble cast.