It seems odd to say that this movie was a wonderful surprise but that is the case. It is wonderful and it was a surprise.
I don’t go to the movies very often; not as often as I’d like. I had never seen a trailer for this movie. Apparently I have been out of touch with the entertainment news as well because the first I time I heard that there was to be a Spielberg movie about Lincoln was the week before it opened when Harper’s Other Dad’s father mentioned it in a telephone conversation. But, I generally enjoy all things historical and usually like Spielberg films so I thought it would be worth seeing.
The first time I recall being aware of Daniel Day-Lewis was when I saw “My Beautiful Laundrette”. Subsequently, I have enjoyed him in “A Room With a View”, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, “The Age of Innocence”. “My Left Foot”. “Gangs of New York”, “The Crucible”, and “There Will Be Blood”. I even enjoyed his performance in “Nine” though I was disappointed in the film itself. He gives an outstanding performance in “Lincoln”. I have no way of knowing how accurately he has portrayed the President but there is a verisimilitude in the mannerisms and speech pattern. Certainly, at no time, did I feel like I was watching Daniel Day-Lewis. There were a couple moments when I thought, ‘that is an unusual way of walking’ but I have no reason to believe that Lincoln didn’t, in fact, have an awkward gait so it didn’t feel false.
I did not know that Sally Field was in the film until she first appeared on-screen. Mary Todd Lincoln is a figure I know only a little about. The role touches on the issues I’ve read about, including her struggles with mental health. There is a lot left unexplored. It is definitely a supporting role, but I think she achieved the goal of showing this aspect of President Lincoln’s life and the way it affected him. I am not sure there is enough in the role to win her another Academy Award. On the other hand, there is more on the screen than there was of Judi Dench when she received her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for “Shakespeare In Love”; so who knows.
The rest of the supporting cast is equally strong. David Strathairn, an actor I always enjoy, plays Secretary of State William Seward. James Spader is outstanding in a character role as well. Tommy Lee Jones is likely to be nominated for his supporting role performance.
The movie isn’t a traditional bio-pic. There are no ‘Lincoln-as-a-young-man’ flashbacks and very little exposition attempting to explain how he became the man he was by that time in his life. In many ways it is more political thriller than historical biography. It focuses on a very short period near the end of the Civil War; beginning after Lincoln’s re-election and ending with his death. In many ways it reminds me of films like “The Missiles of October” which portrayed Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The screenplay was written by Tony Kushner. I know him better as a playwright than a screenwriter but his résumé is impressive in both fields. There are times the pace seems a little slow because the focus is on the discussions and political struggles and not the war raging around them. But I am glad they stuck to the story line rather than venturing into a “Saving Private Ryan”-style documentation of the violence of the Civil War. The horror of war is definitely presented but I was glad he chose to omit large choreographed, special effects-laden battle scenes.
I want to avoid too many spoilers but should note that I liked the way Lincoln’s death was portrayed. I assume most people in the theater knew how Lincoln died. I was pleased that a film that is remarkably subtle did not slide into an Oliver Stone or Sam Peckinpah recreation of his final moments. The end of the film is uplifting, if perhaps a little more stylized than I might have liked.
On the whole; it was 2.5 hours and $20 very well spent.