It was a blessing to be able to see Lincoln a day before the presidential election. In the middle of this year's long madness that turned into a popularity contest, it's refreshing to see that true leadership is anything but. It takes an overwhelming amount of strength, tenacity and faith to defend what you truly believe will be for the betterment of your country and follow through on that path no matter how many obstacles you face.
Spielberg's Lincoln is not a typical biopic the way it's marketing is trying to have us believe, in fact it's not a biopic at all. It focuses almost entirely on the (SPOILER ALERT in case you don't know about one of the key moments in American history) passing of the 13th amendment, which was about finally freeing the slaves. I guess the only reason the film is called Lincoln is because The Fight for The 13th Amendment would be the least interesting title of the year.
Written by legendary playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) based loosely on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals, the film is not a boisterous and ham-fisted biopic that strictly preaches to the crowd but rather a dry and straightforward political drama, kind of like a 19th century version of All The President's Men.
It sounds boring in description but that's how the film manages to elevate above a traditional and clichéd biopic and presents the very real stakes and discourse that existed at the time, and shows a leader who passionately cares about his cause for his country, without any dramatic ploys utilized in order to make him more accessible or perfect.
Through this approach and with great help from Daniel Day Lewis' understated yet masterful performance, Abraham Lincoln comes off as a man, an incredibly strong and formidable man, but a man nevertheless, made of flesh, blood, emotions, strengths and weaknesses, rather than a single-dimensional legend.
Spielberg's usual visual flair takes a step back as he cleverly lets the superb writing, the amazing performances and the breathtaking art direction dominate the foreground. Any audience member expecting a tour-de-force extensive civil war battle scene a-la Saving Private Ryan will be sorely disappointed. It does start with a brief battle scene unlike any civil war battle I have ever seen depicted on film, stripped from all glory and sentimentality, showing its sheer brutality and ugliness. But then the scene is followed by an introduction to Lincoln that would have killed if it was a stage play, and does a great job on film.
The rest of Lincoln focuses entirely on the 13th amendment and aside from successfully showing the passionate ideology behind the movement, it also presents the various back door politics that also helped make it happen. It's interesting to note that Kushner and Spielberg are not only interested in presenting Lincoln as a mythical figure, but also as a consummate politician who knew how to manipulate his peers. His efforts in getting the democratic vote by offering lucrative positions to various democrats during his second term gets almost as much screen time as the passionate speeches about the importance of the amendment.
The performances are truly incredible and will be remembered come Oscar time. Daniel Day Lewis might attract some criticism because his depiction of Lincoln is not the boisterous, dramatic interpretation we're used to seeing in other portrayals.
But apparently this quiet, understated person was much closer to what he was really like and Day-Lewis nails it. This allows the boisterous passion to shine through Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field, who are shoo-ins for best supporting nominations.
Lincoln somewhat overstays its welcome and suffers a bit from The Return of the King syndrome as it presents one possible ending after the other. But it's still Spielberg's best film since Munich and makes us (almost) forgive him The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull.