Cinema has always been considered a great democratic art form – even though it has never been particularly good at representing democracy. There is a plot device in most political films that never ceases to amaze me: when an American president faced with a monumental crisis delivers a speech that wins everyone (regardless of their political stance) over. No character ever responds in disagreeable outrage. Though art imitates life, the concept of political opposition bears no meaning in the movies. Most political films aren’t very good, so for me to say that ‘Lincoln’ is one of the best political films ever made may not be saying much, but I really do think this is a gem of a picture.
The challenge director Steven Spielberg faces with ‘Lincoln’ is a big one. Any American audience member who has his or her high school diploma would have needed to pass American History. And my guess is if you don’t know what 16th President of the United States of America was responsible for during the American Civil War, you should have your History credit revoked and your high school diploma withdrawn. You know, he was kind of a big deal. In any case, most audience members will be equipped with this knowledge. This leaves Spielberg with the challenge of telling an involving story whereby the outcome is already known. And, of course, Spielberg is up to the challenge.
The moment the film’s poster was released, there was already talk of Daniel Day Lewis being considered for a Best Actor Oscar. A strange curiosity it was for me to see this actor of British and Irish citizenship play of one of the most influential American presidents. Bill The Butcher (‘Gangs of New York’), Daniel Plainview (‘There Will Be Blood’), Christy Brown (‘My Left Foot’) – with his angular frame and craggy features, DDL has embodied characters that we as moviegoers will never forget. From his self-conscious posture to his angry outbursts when it looks like the amendment won’t pass, Daniel Day Lewis completely nails every inch of his performance of the title character. And yes, it is absolutely worthy of a Best Actor nomination. Let me go a step further – Daniel Day Lewis *will* win the Best Actor Oscar.
The supporting cast choices are almost entirely excellent. Tommy Lee Jones is fantastic as the quick-witted, fiercely verbal Republican house leader. Joseph Gordon Levitt is great in just about everything now – he plays Lincoln’s elder son who is eager to see combat. To the younger moviegoing audience, don’t see this movie just for JGL – he has a very small part. Sally Field, playing Lincoln’s wife, captures the protectiveness, and moments of near insanity of her character well – but she looks old enough to be Lincoln’s mother. There’s also a barely recognizable James Spader (or completely unrecognizable to me).
‘Lincoln’ isn’t a full-scale biopic in the traditional sense. We’re witnessing a small fraction of the man’s life – but, this window is more than sufficient to understand who he was. And even so, there is enough material present in ‘Lincoln’ for a 10-part mini-series (the movie itself has a runtime of 149 minutes). Spoiler alert (to those who fell asleep in History class) – Lincoln dies. The assassination scene didn’t have the big, Spielbergian emotional impact I was expecting it to have. The most moving scene for me was a quiet scene where the 13th Amendment is read aloud. Which is unlike the usual Spielbergian technique to have his film’s sweeping score milk the emotion out of the viewer – this isn’t intended as criticism, because it’s worked on me in the past (I knew I was being emotionally manipulated, but I didn’t care *cough* War Horse *cough*).
But, there are a number of Spielberg trademarks that are present. ‘Lincoln’ opens with a scene of muddy, hand-to-hand combat and these moments of chaos feels like Saving Private Ryan Lite. However, for the PG-13 standards, there are some brutal and truly memorable images. Spielberg still can’t resist the occasionally corny moment though.
I’ve criticized political films for having the cornball political speech scene. There are many moments of speechifying in ‘Lincoln’, and all of it feels authentic. Lincoln is proud of his own story telling abilities, much to the annoyance of those around him. But, as a viewer, I loved hearing them.
The debates and insider deals in ‘Lincoln’ do make today’s congress look like amateurs. This is a richly detailed account of what Lincoln and his allies that to do to put an end to slavery. I’ve mentioned Daniel Day Lewis’ lock for the Best Actor Oscar. I suspect there will be nominations in the following categories: Best Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones), Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. Movies of this craft and quality tend to sweep. QED.