Imagine, if you will, the movie Lincoln based only on it’s description. It’s a biopic on Abraham Lincoln one of the most beloved Presidents of all time, directed by Steven Spielberg, with a ridiculously high caliber cast and starring, in the title role, Daniel Dey-Lewis, who is generally considered the best actor of his generation and high in the running for the best actor of ANY generation. What movie comes to mind, based on that description? Perhaps a well meaning but a tiny bit white washed version of history, well acted by heavily Oscar bait, like The King’s Speech?
Well what a treat you, I and everyone who sees this movie are in for. Not only is the movie not at all like the movie I made you just imagine, it’s a hundred times better for being different. All of this can be attributed to the area of focus, as the movie is not focused on a broad representation of Lincoln’s whole life; it expects to know all that. Instead, it focuses in on a tight period of history, the period inbetween when Lincoln won his second election and when he passed the 13th Amendment (the one that abolished slavery). This allows the movie, based on the excellent book Team of Rivals, to instead focus on the backroom deals and political arm wringing Lincoln pulled off to force, shame and bribe the lame-duck Democrats into passing the 13th Amendment through the House.
Given that the movie is basically a political thriller, the focus is going to be on the acting, which means that Spielberg’s choice of actors is crucial. I’m going to break form however and not talk about Dey-Lewis’ performance much. What’s the bloody point after all? He’s Daniel Fucking Dey-Lewis, he’s the greatest actor currently alive, of COURSE he kills it in the part, not only giving Lincoln the voice he probably had, but also portraying him in a way we rarely see on film. No, we want to focus on the other performances firstly from a played down Sally Field as Mary Lincoln. Her character is grieving for the death of their second son, but has to put on a brave face and support her husband, and she nails it in a way most portrayals don’t. Second comes Tommy Lee Jones as a thunderously pro-abolition (as well as pro-vote and pro-interracial marriage; extremely odd for his time) politician. He gives his best performance since No Country for Old Men. At one point you can physically see an internal struggle on his face, and that’s a hard thing to pull off. Fantastic supporting work comes from David Straithairn as Secretary of State Seward and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is still having a great year) as Lincoln’s oldest son.
Of course, given it’s subject matter and style, a lot of the focus is going to be on the script, which makes talking about the direction (solid), SFX (excellent) or music (good, if sparsely used) pointless. Which is why it’s good that the script works. The film doesn’t shy away of depictions of Lincoln as odd, or unstable and certainly doesn’t avoid referencing or even depicting his occasional abuse of power. I like that the movie trusts us to KNOW the man was basically a Saint, and uses that to depict his abuse of power as bending the rules for freedom, making Lincoln basically a political vigilante; Batman in an awesome hat. Indeed, a large part of the plot consists of him delaying and hiding the fact that Confederate ambassadors are coming North to negotiate peace, because if the House knows their coming to surrender, they won’t want to vote for the Amendment.
Of course it has flaws, mostly in a running time that seems a bit overlong, but that doesn’t stop it from easily being one of the best movies of the year and a surefire candidate for a fuckton of Oscars come January. This a keeper guys, so it comes highly recommended.
Elessar is a 22 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s pretty sure Daniel Dey-Lewis is trying to win an Oscar every time he acts…and no Nine doesn’t count.