Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 2012. DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox, Reliance Entertainment, Participant Media, Dune Entertainment, Amblin Entertainment, The Kennedy/Marshall Company, Walt Disney Pictures. Screenplay by Tony Kushner, based on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Cinematography by Janusz Kaminski. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg. Music by John Williams. Production Design by Rick Carter. Costume Design by Joanna Johnston. Film Editing by Michael Kahn. Academy Awards 2012. Golden Globe Awards 2012.
The Civil War has been depleting American life and idealism for years by the time we catch up with Honest Abe at the beginning of this rich biopic, just fresh off his re-election for his second term as president of the United States. The cause of abolishing slavery has been paramount in his political strategy for reuniting the country and, as far as most of his voters are concerned, ending the war. At home, his marriage hits increasingly rocky ground as his emotionally volatile wife (Sally Field) finds herself completely unable to put aside the tragedy of the death of one of her sons, combined with the physical pain brought on by her surviving a carriage accident that she believes was an assassination attempt. This surprisingly quiet, smooth political film by Steven Spielberg is commendable for not taking the soap opera route despite the fact that this would be an easy path to tread: Lincoln makes a lot of rousing speeches before a great victory in the law courts, followed by his now epic demise, all of these things perfectly ample opportunities for swells of bombastic music and overripe performances from its actors. All expectations are defied in a demure movie that takes the greatest over-actor of them all, Daniel Day-Lewis, and does not allow him to rise above a charming, aw-shucks cadence more than a handful of times. Day-Lewis, who is usually at his best when massacring the scenery around him with his giant, robotic jaw, is here a loveable yet admirable guy, his appeal to the masses and to his political supporters well in evidence. It’s a film rife with perfect balances, particularly when the star’s low-key persona is matched against his fiery wife’s inability to keep her thoughts to herself (Field’s squaring off with the equally tempestuous Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens is marvelous), while the calm and collected talks Lincoln has with his colleagues are beautifully countered against the terrifying fights he endures with his wife, the two of them genuinely tearing a strip off each other at every chance they get. It’s a surprisingly dialogue-heavy film, but what dialogue! Tony Kushner’s marvelously silky words spill over you like a warm, intelligent blanket, edifying and entertaining the viewer without ever stooping to insulting manipulation (even the conclusion covering Lincoln’s assassination is done with surprisingly tasteful reserve). Kushner knows why the man is admirable but always makes sure to include shades of gray: Lincoln is staunchly on the path towards abolition, but does this mean his ideas of racial equality are ahead of their time? For that matter, it is made clear to us, in scenes that connect the film to issues bubbling up in politics at the time the film is released, that many of Lincoln’s voters want to end slavery solely to end the war but have no intention of making life any better for the newly freed. This is Spielberg at his most introspective, and it shows an incredible amount of growth since the lamentably manipulative Amistad fifteen years earlier.