Lincoln is one of those films I had to force myself to watch. As a Very Important Film from esteemed director Steven Spielberg and starring esteemed actor Daniel Day-Lewis, it arrived with so much weight attached that it felt like a burden to dive in. Thankfully, the highly literary writing from Tony Kushner elevates the film, as his well-crafted plot centers on only the final months of Lincoln’s life and is just as concerned with the political intrigue on Capitol Hill as it is with the man.
Rather than falling into the typical biographical trap of recounting the entire life, or at least entire adult life, of its subject, the film narrows the focus to the eventful months of the end of Lincoln’s life, as he first led his fellow politicians to abolish slavery before ending the Civil War and reuniting the country. There’s no attempt to glorify ol’ Honest Abe here, and in fact the script takes pains to show his backroom dealings employed to win passage of the Thirteenth Amendment by any means necessary, including promises of influential positions to lame duck congressmen and deceit about the timing of the end of war.
Day-Lewis fully embodies the role to such an extent that he completely disappears and we’re left with a reincarnated legend, a truly masterful turn that is absolutely worth of its Oscar win. This Lincoln doesn’t seem himself as better than anyone, as he loves telling stories in front of all levels of his inner circle, talks as equals to soldiers on the front lines and leads by collaboration rather than decree. We’re informed multiple times that everyone loves him, and the film makes it easy to see why, but we’re also made fully aware that he’s just human and not above employing deceit and pressure to get his way.
Tommy Lee Jones also impresses in his supporting role as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a fierce champion of the Amendment, eliciting an uncharacteristically effusive performance from the stoic actor. Sally Field is merely ok as Lincoln’s wife, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt doesn’t have much to do as Lincoln’s son. Many other recognizable actors pop up in bit roles, with the best material reserved for David Strathairn as fiery Secretary of State William Seward and James Spader as a boozy lobbyist.
Spielberg doesn’t get in the way, stepping back and allowing the powerful script and actor to lead the film. I’ve never been a fan of his longtime Director of Photography/Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, but his typically washed out and grainy images are somewhat less so here and a good match for the historical setting of the film. That graininess and somewhat shallow depth of field in the shot selections detracts from the overall Blu-ray presentation, but the excellent DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack provides added dimension.
Bonus features on the principal disc include a featurette where Spielberg and his production team discuss the challenges of bringing the story to the screen, as well as a look at the historical significance of their setting in Richmond, VA. An additional Blu-ray disc includes a piece on Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Lincoln and the quest for authenticity by the actors and filmmakers, a look at the painstaking production design, costumes and makeup that added authenticity to the period setting, behind the scenes footage of the production, as well as a look at the film’s editing, sound design, and score by longtime Spielberg collaborator John Williams. It’s a dizzying array of bonus features sure to satisfy the most ardent of film fanatics. The Blu-ray combo pack also includes the film on DVD and a disc with a digital copy.
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