Lincoln [2012]

4 stars

Lincoln fan poster

Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner; based on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Joseph Cross, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Michael Stuhlbarg, Walton Goggins, Lukas Haas, Dane DeHaan

In the second 2012 film to have the 16th president of the US as its protagonist, Abraham Lincoln doesn’t fight vampires but his political adversaries and even members of his own party to achieve racial equality and abolish slavery, a feat which identifies him to this day.

Lincoln, the latest film by Steven Spielberg, takes quite a while to get going, and pace is a minor but constant issue, particularly if we consider the movie’s more than two-and-a-half hours long.

Despite it advancing a bit slower than I would like, Lincoln is not boring, even if the film is quite the didactic experience, like a big-budget History lesson. It’s not bad, though, for movies to teach us something while they entertain once in a while.

The development of Lincoln took more than 12 years. During that time, Liam Neeson left the titular role. But those years were more than enough to recruit some of the finest talent in Hollywood: the striking cinematography by Janusz Kamiński and the score by John Williams, two of Spielberg’s main collaborators, as well as the costumes by Joanna Johnston, makeup and art direction are all worth mentioning and work together to take us back to the difficult Civil War times.

Of course, the performances are the film’s strongest asset and what ultimately sets Lincoln apart from many other biopics. The vast ensemble does a fantastic job but three thespians stand out.

First up is Tommy Lee Jones, who renders another iteration of the “grumpy old guy” character he’s been doing for quite a while. It may not be groundbreaking, but his work is still amazing, and Lee Jones dominates each of his scenes.

Sally Field occasionally descends into melodrama but, despite that temporary absence of control, Field delivers one of the finest female performances of the year. A discussion between her Mary Todd Lincoln and Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens is one of the highlights of the film.

But it’s Daniel Day-Lewis who carries the whole film on his shoulders. We all think we know Lincoln: the beard, the nose, the imposing stature, the thin frame. That’s what the photographs have shown us. But having no audiovisual record of the man (obviously), it’s next to impossible to truly know the way he spoke and carried himself.

Day-Lewis, then, offers his take on the legend and not only tackles the role of Abraham Lincoln with aplomb, he turns into a new point of reference for our own concept of the 16th president.

There are no explosive moments in this performance like there were in Gangs of New York and There Will be Blood. This portrayal, or rather, this transformation, sees Daniel Day-Lewis at his most subtle and understated. The British actor already has two ‘Best Actor’ Oscars on his mantle and he’ll most definitely pick up a third one come February. He’d be the first one to do so.

Spielberg, the director, has made a name and a fortune with corny, manipulative cinema (not all of his movies but at least a big chunk of his filmography), but here he shows amazing restraint.  The timing of his latest couldn’t have been better. America’s first black president just started a second term in office. It goes without saying that that wouldn’t even be possible if it wasn’t for Abraham Lincoln.

Despite all the things it does right, Lincoln is not the best film made in 2012. But its historical, social and political significance, more than its artistic merits, make it the one to beat at the Academy Awards next month.

UPDATE: At the time I wrote this review, I truly felt this was the frontrunner to the Best Picture Oscar but, in my eyes at least, the race has changed and Argo looks like the one to beat.