Lincoln – A Review

This weekend in between all-you-can-eat sushi (yum!) and watching my college football team become #1 in the nation (Go Irish!), I managed to squeeze in some time with our sixteenth president. Saturday morning I hit the cinema to see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.

As it was made abundantly clear in my War Horse review, I am not generally a fan of Spielberg’s work. I find a lot of his movies to be too saccharine sweet and emotionally manipulative. I would have enjoyed Super 8 a lot more if it was less Spielberg and more J.J. Abrams; once that film got overly sentimental I lost interest. However, the Spielberg movies that I tend to enjoy the most are those that are either rooted in history (Munich, Schindler’s List) or that are based on a book (Minority Report). Lincoln had the benefit of both – obviously Lincoln is a historical figure and Lincoln used Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals as inspiration (confession – I used to want to be Kearns Goodwin when I grew up). So while I still had some trepidation about the film, I walked into Lincoln a little more confident that I would like it than other Spielberg productions.

Turns out that my instincts were right – Lincoln is a wonderful film that doesn’t have a whole lot of schmaltz or forced emotion; it is a very un-Spielberg-like film. Spielberg was able to mostly restrain himself and let the strength of the story and the film’s powerhouse performances be enough. If I didn’t know that he was attached to the film, I wouldn’t have necessarily guessed that he was sitting in the director’s chair.

Going into the film, I wasn’t sure what time period would be covered; I didn’t know if the film would be a Lincoln biography or if it would focus on a few key events of Lincoln’s presidency.  Lincoln primarily concentrates on only a sliver of the vast material available and depicts Lincoln’s struggles in trying to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (for non-Constitutional nerds like me, that’s the one that ended slavery). However, though the film only emphasizes that one segment, it is an excellent illustration of what Lincoln was like and the political climate in which he was operating. On paper, the idea of making a movie about the battle to pass the Amendment in the House of Representatives might not sound all that entertaining, but in reality it was pretty compelling stuff.

You can’t talk about Lincoln without first addressing the man who portrays him and Daniel Day Lewis is spectacular. That is not surprising, given what a gifted and varied actor that he has proven himself to be, but watching Day Lewis as Lincoln is like watching a master class in acting. He becomes Lincoln. I used to teach a course on the presidency to underclassmen so I probably know more about this stuff than the average bear, but Daniel Day Lewis incorporates all sorts of minor traits and ticks in his performance to the point that he is the personification of one of our most famous presidents. He is so good that if you had told me that it wasn’t actually an actor, but a regenerated Lincoln brought back from the dead for this performance, I would believe you. Just an amazing performance; Daniel Day Lewis is a lock for a Best Actor nomination and, though it is early, I would think that he has to be the favorite right now to take home the trophy. Phenomenal work.

Daniel Day Lewis is also surrounded by a stellar supporting cast of just about every actor working today. The cast of Lincoln is a murder’s row of talent; I like to think that I am a human IMDB page and when an actor appears on screen I try to remember what other roles that I know him or her from. Over the course of Lincoln, I think I fried my own motherboard trying to keep up. That’s how deep the talent is for this movie. In fact, I’m not sure that I didn’t appear in this movie; it wouldn’t have surprised me to see my own name in the credits. Every new scene brings another familiar face.

The two most substantial roles after Lincoln belong to Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens) and Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln). They had harder times disappearing into their roles than the rest of the cast, but they are also arguably the most famous and recognizable people in the film. Tommy Lee Jones was excellent despite being forced to wear a ridiculous wig; seriously, it might be worth paying to see this movie just to see said ridiculous wig sitting upon his head. Tommy Lee Jones is often reduced to being the crotchety old man in movies and while he definitely was his usual craggy self, it was nice to see him in a role that let him spread his wings a little bit and actually act. Stevens is one of many characters faced with a moral dilemma in the film and it allowed Tommy Lee Jones to stretch and play some notes that he isn’t normally called upon to play. I was less impressed with Sally Field who was serviceable as Lincoln’s wife, but didn’t blow me away. I’ve liked her in other things, but I don’t know that she was the right person for the part. Mary Todd Lincoln and her legendary instability are a difficult role to play and Field may just not have had the depth required. She’s not bad, but I thought that she was the weakest of the major parts.

Some other thoughts:

  • No babies at this screening, but I think some of the people in the audience may have known Lincoln personally. It was definitely an older crowd; I may have been the youngest person in the theater by 40 years.
  • Of all the actors in the film, I was most proud that I recognized Adam Driver, who plays Lena Duham’s boyfriend Adam on HBO’s Girls. Miniscule part, but I was like “Wait – I know that guy.”
  • There was a throwaway line in the film referencing the need to bring in some of the scoundrels from Albany to help get the votes for the Amendment (I’m paraphrasing). That got a big laugh in our theater; glad to see that politics in Albany haven’t changed in 100+ years. (12/11/12 – the New York Times did a story on the Albany mention. I’m impressed I scooped the paper of record).
  • If you watch Justified – and you should – you will be pleased to know that Walter Goggins makes an appearance in Lincoln. Always a good thing when he shows up.
  • The film is long (about 2 hours and 20 minutes), which is the same length of time as the new Bond film but it is a long time to sit in the theater when nothing is blowing up.
  • I was surprised that a Spielberg film dropped an F-bomb and the N word. I believe both were only used once, and the latter was in keeping with the historical period, but it still seemed out of character.
  • I am also glad that the film didn’t totally mythicize Lincoln; he was a great man and did great things, but people often give him more credit on some issues than he deserves. For example, he wanted to end slavery, but he was a little skittish about the idea of universal suffrage for African Americans. Not to diminish his accomplishments, but he isn’t quite as forward thinking as people have made him out to be.
  • If people think that Congress is uncivilized today, they won’t believe what it was like in the 19th Century. There were all sorts of insults and yelling, but in a slightly dignified manner. Makes our spirited discussions look pretty refined by comparison.
  • The insults weren’t limited to Congress; Mary Todd threw some shade as well.
  • James Spader still manages to be a pimp (figuratively, not literally) when playing a 1860s political operative. I love that guy.
  • Spielberg is restrained in this movie, but he doesn’t completely control all his worst tendencies. There are a few scenes that have his fingerprints all over it and he doesn’t trust himself enough to go with the organic feeling ending and instead has to tack on an ending that feels forced and not at all subtle.
  • This has nothing to directly to do with the film, but this was my favorite sketch when Louis C.K. hosted SNL a few weeks ago:

I very much enjoyed Lincoln and I think that the performances will make this movie accessible to people who are less predisposed to enjoying the subject matter. You don’t have to be a Civil War or history buff to find the film engaging. I have no doubt that you will be hearing a lot about Lincoln come awards season. The buzz is well deserved; Daniel Day Lewis alone is worth seeing the film.

Lincoln opened nationwide on Friday November 16th.

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3 thoughts on “Lincoln – A Review

  1. javaj240 says:

    I, too, wanted to grow up to be Doris Kearns Goodwin (without the plagiarizing scandal, of course). As it turns out, I’m more Doris Roberts than DKG, but that’s okay, too!

    Justified is my favorite show— I love me some Timothy Olyphant (no one wears a cowboy hat better— no one)! Walter Coggins is no slouch either.

    Great review. We tried to see Lincoln this weekend, but we couldn’t get a parking spot. So, we gave up and went to the grocery store. (See what I mean about being Doris Roberts?)

  2. javaj240 says:

    *Goggins…oops!

    Also, I always thought Scottie MacGregor would have been an awesome Mary Todd Lincoln!

  3. Alex Perez says:

    Need to weigh-in on Lincoln. Hope you don’t mind me using your blog, since I have no one else to share my thoughts with. (Woe is me!) I loved the balance between Mr. Lincoln’s self-conscious myth-historical burden and Mrs. Todd’s personal neurotic self-loathing. I thought that was a great dynamic and made the movie watchable for me. I was much more interested in what was going on with the Lincoln family than with all the political wheeling and dealing. What was with the young Lincoln boy’s fascination with the slave photographs? I loved that kid. What ever happened to him?

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