Lincoln is the type of historically inaccurate, yet wholly fascinating experience that you need to see simply because of the talent behind it. If for no other reason than how compelling Daniel Day-Lewis is in the lead role, you must watch this movie. That it’s directed by Steven Spielberg and will most certainly be up for a Best Picture Oscar in a few months is another, but the most important thing to take away from the film is Day-Lewis’ performance. He is the frontrunner for this year’s Best Actor.
The film attempts to portray the last few months of the life of the 16th President of the United States. It is not a biopic, and therefore does not have to stay true to life. As a result, Lincoln, as portrayed by Day-Lewis, is given the chance to have a single desire in life: abolish slavery right here and now. It’s like he knows he’ll soon be shot dead while watching a play. The civil war? That’s actually convenient for his masterful and manipulative plan to be put into action. Ending slavery is the sole thing on Lincoln’s mind throughout the entire picture.
This gets tiresome. I have no doubt that Abraham Lincoln was an interesting man, but he’s not written as such here. He has a single motivating factor throughout, and while it’s an admirable one, seeing him talk about that and pretty much only that for 150 minutes, especially when there are so many other things going on around him, is boring — or, it would be if not for Day-Lewis’ phenomenal performance, and Spielberg’s authentic direction.
Apart from Lincoln, every other character in the film feels authentic. So do the sets, the costumes, and the dialogue. You’re transported back in time while Lincoln plays, and while the film might not be true-to-life, it can easily pretend to be and will fool all but those who paid great attention in history class. It’s a film that can lie, and this is a very powerful tool at its disposal. For a while, we’re not even entirely sure what the outcome of Lincoln’s ploy will be; it’s not staying true to history anyway, so perhaps he’ll fail. That tension is there, which makes for some strong final moments.
The main focus of the story has Abraham Lincoln deciding that now is the time for slavery to end, and believes that, if he can get twenty democratic party congressmen to vote for its abolition, his amendment to the Constitution will go through. The southern states, because of the civil war, won’t get a say, which means he’ll have just enough support, assuming he can sway twenty voters. So, that’s what he — and the men under his employ — does for the entirety of the film.
Let me get this straight now: Lincoln is never a boring film. The titular character might occasionally get dull thanks to his single desire taking over his entire personality, but the film around him is always exciting. Even Lincoln, thanks to the performance turned in by Daniel Day-Lewis, stays intriguing, for the most part. It’s like being in the same room as the actual President, as he lived and breathed. Day-Lewis looks and acts just like Abraham Lincoln reportedly did; it’s just uncanny and something that is, by itself, the price of admission.
However, Day-Lewis isn’t the only one from Lincoln who has a great shot at an Oscar. Tommy Lee Jones plays another man for whom the abolition of slavery is a passion, and is almost assuredly a lock for Best Supporting Actor. He gets to be funny, but only because of the condescending performance brought out by Tony Kushner’s sharp script. This may be a drama, but it’s wickedly funny, and Lee Jones is at the center of much of that comedy.
Another strong contender comes from Sally Field, a two-time Oscar winner, playing Lincoln’s wife, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. She’s very much in a supporting role, but there are at least a couple of scenes where Field reminds you exactly why she has those two Oscars, going toe-to-toe with each of the main male characters and quite possibly coming out on top. In even more supporting roles, we find Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Lincolns’ son and David Strathairn as the Secretary of State.
It’s ultimately too long of a film, and could have been trimmed down to two hours without much of a problem. You are often immersed in the environment — not in the plot — making it hard to notice, but there were some trims that could have taken place to shorten the experience. Gordon-Levitt’s character is also quite underutilized, often going long stretches without being used and when he is, it’s only for a scene at a time. It seemed like an obligatory commitment to put in Lincoln’s son, which was unnecessary given that the film barely touched upon the family life — it was all about slavery.
Lincoln is ultimately a good movie, and it’s well worth your time if for no other reason than to see the film that couple potentially take three of the four acting Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards. It also allows you to lose yourself in the atmosphere; you feel as if you’re back in the time when Lincoln was still alive, It would have been nicer for Lincoln to have been written as more complex, and it could have used tighter editing, but it’s still a very enjoyable film that is absolutely worth seeing.