Written by Chris Morgan
Steven Spielberg. Daniel Day-Lewis. Abraham Lincoln. It is no surprise that a movie combining this trio was getting major Oscar buzz by the time the first poster was released. However, in the end, Lincoln did not win Best Picture in 2012, losing out to Argo. Day-Lewis did get his Best Actor win for his portrayal of the former president, while Spielberg, Tommy Lee Jones, and Sally Field were all nominated but failed to take home any Oscar statues. Still, that’s a lot of prestige for a film, even if it isn’t quite what a group that impressive would hope for.
Spielberg and company made the decision to focus this movie on one specific time period of Lincoln’s life, and one specific task for that matter. It is mostly about Lincoln’s attempts to pass the 13th amendment to abolish slavery, and more to the point to pass it before the Civil War ends. The movie, of course, makes time for other things, such as family matters, but this is not an overarching biopic of Abraham Lincoln. It was a wise move, as this event was more than enough to focus on, and it also allowed Day-Lewis to perform the role throughout the entire film. Sure, we never learned the origin story of Abe’s famous stovepipe hat, but that’s what prequels are for.
Lincoln goes into a lot of detail about the goings on and shenanigans taking place in the government, and namely the House of Representatives at the time. We get to see many, many political figures, many of which are played by prominent actors. Many of the best character actors in the business are in this movie. Well, that is to say many of the best white male character actors, but that’s the nature of this time period, alas. It is still a tremendous supporting cast, and supporting Day-Lewis certainly isn’t too difficult.
Unsurprisingly, Day-Lewis is excellent as Lincoln. The performance isn’t as dynamic of some of his past work, but he was portraying a real person, so he couldn’t really bring the bombast of a Daniel Plainview. DDL does not overshadow the film, or his fellow actors, which is important in a movie that is as much about an event, an important one to boot, as a man. He was most assuredly worthy of another Best Actor Oscar, with a physical performance that matched the delivery of his dialogue.
However, his is not the only performance worth noting. Field does a fine job as Mary Todd Lincoln, although the script seems to be clumsily going out of its way at times to try and salvage her historical legacy, and Jones is strong as Thaddeus Stevens, a staunch abolitionist who does not want to play political games. An Oscar nomination seems fair, although it isn’t necessarily a much better performance than other supporting parts. It just happens to be bigger. Other actors worth pointing out in particular are Michael Stuhlberg, as well as the trio of James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson. The latter trio play the nefarious gentleman tasked with performing the sordid political games that Lincoln himself couldn’t really partake in. They are a lot of fun, and provide a bit of levity to a fairly serious movie.
Of course, while it may be serious, it is also a Spielberg blockbuster, and it feels very much like the typical Spielberg film. This is not necessarily a negative, however. He is a very accomplished film maker, even if he has sort of ossified into his tricks. There are moments that were obviously going to be there. Moments when the strings swell and the camera pans over emotional characters. They still work, because this is a very professional movie.
It is also a very good script, one that got nominated for an Oscar as well. The dialogue is very sharp, and the plotting is dense but not confounding. The movie fills its two and half hours of running time, although perhaps it could have been a tad shorter. This is a minor quibble, however. There aren’t any major quibbles with this movie.
The following statement is made with the obvious caveat that it can’t be logistically compared to every film that came out in 2012, but Lincoln is the best movie of that year as measured against the known competition. Now, that doesn’t mean it is a great movie. It is, however, a very good movie in a year that most films did not rise above the level of “good.” The cast is full of ringers at the top of their game, and arguably the best actor working today was at the helm, and he was tremendous as always. Spielberg did a solid directing job, making sure the movie looked good and hit the notes he wanted, and the script excelled as well. It is not an all-time great movie, but it is one of the better movies to come out recently, and a film that was quite deserving of the Best Picture Oscar that, alas, it shall never receive.