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Lincoln Review: Day-Lewis Saves the Day

John’s Rating: 7/10
Fused Rating: 7.7/10
(3 reviews total)

The way Daniel Day-Lewis towers over Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is almost a shame. His performance is one of such immersion that you’ll occasionally lose sight of what’s going on around him — even the words he’s speaking.

Or maybe that has to do with Tony Kushner’s drier-than-desert-sand screenplay. Abraham Lincoln’s life and presidency are important (and juicy) enough to make a half-dozen brilliant, very different films. Unfortunately, Spielberg’s new take on Honest Abe, which focuses on the final months of his life, misses brilliance by quite a margin. It’s impeccably crafted, and Day-Lewis truly kills it, but the ins and outs of lawmaking circa 1865 just doesn’t hook you the way you might expect they would.


After being elected to a second term as president, Lincoln (Day-Lewis) decides the time is right to push the House of Representatives to pass a radical piece of legislation — the 13th Amendment to the Constitution — which would abolish slavery in the United States and all of its territories. Lincoln, a Republican, recognizes that many Democrats who have lost their bids for re-election (the “lame ducks”) won’t have anything to lose, and for a price, would cross party lines to support his bill. Of course, promising tax-payer-funded jobs to rival politicians is a sketchy business unbecoming of the President of the United States, so he and his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), enlist the help of three Washington scoundrels (Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, and James Spader) to procure 20 Democrats’ votes.

Meanwhile, the Civil War still rages on, and though the Confederacy looks defeated, scores of men on both sides are dying daily. Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), wants to stand with the Union soldiers, but his father and mother (Sally Field) forbid it. Lincoln, of course, longs for an end to the fighting as much as he longs to pass his anti-slavery legislation. But it seems accomplishing both goals might not be possible.

With a Confederate delegation on its way to Washington, any radical policy shift (i.e. the legal end of slavery) could end any chance of a peaceful Southern surrender. On the other hand, Lincoln knows the window of time he has to pass the law closes when the calendar turns to February. He’s forced to make a seemingly impossible choice and friends and enemies on both sides of the aisle have plenty to say about his ultimate decision.


The way Spielberg tackles the stale biopic genre is refreshing. He isn’t interested in telling us about Lincoln’s birthplace or his relationship with his parents. This isn’t the “greatest hits” treatment J. Edgar Hoover and Margaret Thatcher received last year. Its scope is quite narrow, which is, theoretically, an asset. In practice, however, this material is too stately. There’s plenty of friction between the two political parties, and the dichotomy between Lincoln’s goal and the means by which he achieves it is intriguing. Ultimately, however, Lincoln limps along at a snail’s pace without ever nailing its natural dramatic crescendos.

Day-Lewis, however, gives a performance that’ll rival any since, well, Day-Lewis’ own work in There Will Be Blood. Everything from the voice to the makeup to the lanky mannerisms he adopts leads to a transformation that’s completely believable and absolutely compelling. His presence in the film is very stoic. He excels in quiet moments, like when he lies in the floor holding his son, or when he silently waits while the House votes on his bill. His Oscar nomination is a certainty. His third career win is quite likely.

Tommy Lee Jones seems poised for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Lincoln‘s ensemble is deeper than any film in recent memory, but Jones is the one supporting actor who you’ll remember long after the details of the film have faded from your memory. He steals every scene he’s in, spewing bile at every pro-slavery democrat who dares challenge him. Meanwhile, Sally Field imbues Mary Todd Lincoln with the emotional stability of your average Justin Bieber fangirl, and Gordon-Levitt is seriously underused as Lincoln’s son.


The film’s production design is unparalleled, while Spielberg’s use of light will floor you. The entire film — its interiors, props, costumes, etc. — looks straight out of the 1860s, and there isn’t a director out there with an eye for detail like Spielberg. John Williams’ very subdued work also deserves credit for bucking expectations; his work here is the best “non-score” in some time.

Lincoln‘s whole, however, doesn’t equal the sum of its parts. In fact, it isn’t even close. Its performances are sensational, and it hits all the right notes technically, but Spielberg and Kushner’s quiet-as-a-mouse approach to Lincoln‘s dramatic peaks and valleys ultimately knocks it down a few pegs from the unequivocal triumph it should have been to the minor success it actually is. Rating: 7/10

Steven thought: “Day-Lewis is the rock at the film’s center; he will disappoint no one except those hoping to see another incarnation of Daniel Plainview. Day-Lewis’  is calm, reserved yet every bit as commanding of the screen as Plainview. He knows everyone’s eyes will be on him, so he dials his performance down in a way that makes him even more prominent. As for Spielberg, his film is a technical marvel as usual, but he also knows a thing or two about emotional catharsis, and while this won’t bring you to tears, you’ll feel as though you’re witnessing history. Lincoln doesn’t offer many surprises, but considering how thoroughly it handles politics and captures important themes about doing what’s right in such a pure way, history teachers will show it in class for years to come.” Rating: 8/10

Ethan thought: “Apart from a brutal opening battle scene, Lincoln is remarkably tight and claustrophobic compared to the sweeping historical epic we assumed it would be, focusing solely on about one month near the end of the president’s life, when he was trying to pass the 13th Amendment through Congress. Kushner’s sharp screenplay emphasizes the theatricality of this back-stage politicking, as words resound as loudly as bullets here. Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the man himself is of course delicate and humanizing, as he balances the leader’s larger-than-life public persona with a weary, uncertain demeanor when dealing with conflicted family matters. He also has help from a tremendous supporting cast, featuring too many phenomenal character actors to name here. As he tends to do, Spielberg plunges too far into sentimentality in the film’s closing moments, which is a shame because Lincoln is his most focused, topical film in some time.” Rating: 8/10

Rating
7.7

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