Touchstone Pictures // 2012 // 150 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 2nd, 2013
A man of moral courage and great determination.
"Do you think we choose the times into which we are born? Or do we fit the times we are born into?"
The year is 1865, and the Civil War is drawing to a close. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood) signed the Emancipation Proclamation and declared that all slaves were free, but abolitionists are concerned that the proclamation may be thrown out by the courts once the war concludes. As such, there is a movement to pass a constitutional amendment that will ensure that slavery and involuntary servitude are permanently outlawed. Though Lincoln is on board with the movement, he fears that the amendment may not be able to find the support it needs before the war concludes. With the aid of such men as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, No Country for Old Men), Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn, Good Night, and Good Luck), Republican Party Operative William N. Bilbo (James Spader, Stargate) and many more, Lincoln begins a complex operation to secure the votes required for passage of the amendment. Meanwhile, Lincoln attempts to handle increasingly strained relationships with his wife Mary (Sally Field, Smokey and the Bandit) and his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Dark Knight Rises).
In our current political climate, it's easy to fall into the trap of yearning for "the good old days." Politicians engage in foolish posturing for fear of losing even a tiny bit of ground on any political issue, compromises are made that prevent anything substantial from happening and the big picture is constantly set aside in favor of short-term solutions. Among its many other accomplishments, Steven Spielberg's Lincoln provides us with a sharp reminder that there's nothing new under the sun. It presents a political climate just as thorny and maddeningly difficult as the one we face today, albeit without the added chaos of the 24-hour news cycle. Additionally, it demonstrates the unpleasant truth that playing dirty is far more likely to get results than any noble speechmaking. President Lincoln can speechify until he's blue in the face about how all human beings are created equal, but (spoiler alert for residents of Mississippi) it's the crafty deceptions he and his team concoct that get the amendment passed.
If you've seen the trailers for the film -- which promised an impossibly noble, stately portrait of A Great Man -- you might be pleasantly surprised by the fact that much of Lincoln is actually a vital, surprisingly entertaining legal drama. Though the President is at the center of the film's events, it could be argued that the film is actually mistitled: it tells us more about the political machine than it does about the President himself (indeed, the title of the Doris Kearns Goodwin book upon which the film is partially based would have been more apt: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln). Many of the film's most engaging scenes are strategy-based, as Lincoln finds ways to secure votes by whatever means necessary. To be sure, he never goes so far as to actually violate the law, but he uses every loophole available to him.
Much has been made of the manner in which Spielberg, Lincoln scribe Tony Kushner and a host of others attempted to recreate the era as closely as possible. Indeed, if reports are to be believed, every costume, set and colloquialism was painstakingly researched during the pre-production process. Yes, there are certainly moments in which we're unmistakably reminded that we're watching a movie (the John Williams score swells a little too insistently now and then, and a handful of supporting performances veer into melodrama), but for the most part Spielberg and co. do a remarkable job of convincing us that things are as they were. A huge amount of credit for this should go to cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who uses natural light to capture an alternately dusty and muddy take on Washington that often feels like a living daguerreotype.
I noted earlier that the film isn't really so much about Abraham Lincoln as it is about a specific moment in time in which he was heavily involved, but it's hard to imagine anyone turning in a more definitive take on Lincoln than Daniel Day-Lewis has delivered. Over the past decade, Day-Lewis had become an actor associated with fiery bluster, delivering performances in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood that were almost frightening in their tenacity. In Lincoln, the actor makes a 180-degree turn and delivers the most graceful performance I've ever seen from him. He's known for his intense method acting, but unlike Brando, De Niro or many other famed proponents of the method, Day-Lewis actually does lose himself in a role rather than simply delivering an intense variation on a familiar persona. To witness Day-Lewis' Lincoln is to feel you are in the presence of the man himself: you see the weariness the office and the war have granted him, the homespun charm he still clings to and the canny politician hiding beneath the reflective exterior. It doesn't immediately bowl you over the way Day-Lewis' louder performances do, but it's indelible nonetheless. It's hard to begrudge him his third Oscar win, despite the fact that the performance was the year's most obvious piece of Oscar bait.
The only other actor who operates at Day-Lewis' level is Tommy Lee Jones, who plays the film's most progressive and impassioned character. Jones' take on Thaddeus Stevens is a joy to behold, and the scene in which the famously cantankerous congressman finds a way to simultaneously make a difficult compromise and take savage potshots at his opponents is a thing of beauty. There's a scene towards the end in which Stevens lies in bed with his African-American lover while she reads the thirteenth amendment aloud. "Read it to me again," Jones sighs happily. It might have seemed like the film's corniest moment, but the actor brings so much weary conviction to his line reading that it becomes tremendously moving. The other actors range from functional to exceptional, but the remarkable portraits of Lincoln and Stevens are the ones that leave a lasting impression. Well, to be fair, James Spader's greasiness manages to be pretty memorable, too.
Lincoln (Blu-ray) offers a terrific 1080p/2.40:1 transfer that does a tremendous job of highlighting the film's remarkable cinematography and period design. Detail is nothing short of superb, depth is terrific and shadow delineation is strong. You can see every one of Lincoln's whiskers and every bead of sweat on Mary Todd's face. The DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio mix is just as impressive, capturing every tiny atmospheric element with expertise. It's not a particularly loud film by Spielberg standards, but the mix is remarkably immersive. Supplements included in this 4-disc combo pack are highlighted by a handful of well-produced featurettes: "The Journey to Lincoln" (9 minutes), "A Historic Tapestry: Richmond, Virginia" (4 minutes), "In the Company of Character" (10 minutes), "Crafting the Past" (11 minutes), "Living with Lincoln" (27 minutes) and "In Lincoln's Footsteps" (17 minutes). Other than that, you only get a DVD copy and digital copy of the film. Disappointingly, the standard Blu-ray release eliminates most of the aforementioned featurettes. It's a pretty flimsy effort to make fans of the film to spend a few extra bucks.
I realize that it may seem like I'm simply jumping on a bandwagon here, but the many critics who have pointed out that Lincoln goes on a little longer than it needs to are correct. To be sure, most of the film zips right on by and proves immensely engaging, but the final scenes (which detail the conclusion of the war and Lincoln's life) feel superfluous. The film was content with leaving out key moments from earlier in Lincoln's life for the sake of getting to the central story, so the final scenes feel like a coda to a lengthier, more traditional biopic. Nothing would have been lost if Spielberg had cut directly from the immediate aftermath of the bill's passage to the closing credits. It's just enough needless material to convince some viewers that what they just experienced was a more conventional film than it actually is.
Lincoln is another winner from one of America's greatest living directors. It's a rewarding, thoughtful, surprisingly relevant examination of a crucial moment in our nation's history. The ever-remarkable Daniel Day-Lewis does justice to our 16th President with his sensitive, understated performance. The Blu-ray release is strong, though the special features package could have been a bit more comprehensive. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 150 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy