With Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg tackles one of the most ambitious projects of his near 40-year career. This is a thorough, meticulous exploration of the democratic process at a groundbreaking time in American history.
There is an almost overwhelming laundry list of character actors that fill the multiple roles in a varied cast, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris, Jackie Earl Haley, Lee Pace, and Michael Stuhlberg. Particular standouts include James Spader and John Hawkes as the tag-team handed the responsibility of securing the necessary votes to pass the amendment; David Strathairn as Secretary of State and Lincoln’s righthand advisor William Seward; and Tommy Lee Jones as fiery Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens. Regrettably, Sally Field is almost forgettable as Mary Todd, but she fills the shoes of a complex role admirably and does not detract from the central thrust of the film.
At two and a half hours, the film suffers from pacing problems and a lack of emotional commitment from the audience, but there are several riveting showdowns in the House of Representatives. One true success of the film is the willingness to deeply explore and reveal Lincoln’s humanity in the midst of a confusing set of personal dilemmas and a troubling national crisis. Dry, talky yet consistently entertaining, the film does remarkable double duty as a history lesson and a reminder of the paralytic limitations of a political refusal to compromise.
The dense script by Tony Kushner, directorial bravado by Spielberg, and exquisite cinematography by Janusz Kaminski (not to mention other superlative production values) lend weight to the story and audience immersion in a time long past.
However, the film benefits most significantly via another phenomenal performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis, recently hailed by Time as the greatest actor in the world, gives one of his most impressive performances ever (his best arguably remains Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood) as the 16th president during the final month of his time in office. Day-Lewis disappears into Lincoln’s persona and nails his walk and talk with an unnervingly convincing portrayal.
Lincoln may only rank at the bottom of the year’s best overall, but it is an accessible, worthwhile accomplishment and Spielberg’s most satisfying film in a decade.