When you think of Steven Spielberg doing a biopic of Abraham Lincoln, you immediately expect to see loads of overly sentimental nonsense. Lincoln is not that film, think of it less as a biopic of Lincoln and more of what if they did The West Wing with Lincoln, and it’s even better than it sounds.
First things first, right now I am studying A2 Politics, focusing right now on Congress and the Constitution. As such, the political aspects of the film were really appealing to me and made me appreciate just how much good back-room dealings, corruption and compromises can do in the service of things like getting the 13th Amendment passed. The thing is though, even if you are not familiar with many aspects of US government, the film explains things like the 2/3 majority needed to pass an amendment in a way that everyone can understand it.
The real draw to this film though is the acting. Daniel Day-Lewis is incredible as Lincoln. You feel a great deal of respect towards Lincoln when he’s in the public eye but you never forget that he’s a flawed man. This is especially true in the way he interacts with the excellent Sally Field and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Mary Todd Lincoln and Robert Lincoln respectively. You see the strained relationship he has with his family and how hard he finds it to balance his family and political life. Plus, the different stories he tells makes Lincoln really friendly and likeable and you get a real sense of why Lincoln is often regarded as the greatest President in the history of the US. If there’s anyone in the cast who comes close to matching Daniel Day-Lewis in terms of performance quality, it’s Tommy Lee Jones. Not only is his character arc brilliantly handled and shows the necessity of compromise but he is also really funny as Thaddeus Stevens. He gets all of the funniest lines and really makes them work. I don’t think I could see anyone else playing Stevens as well as Tommy Lee Jones did. The rest of the cast are all brilliant, there are so many great actors in the film that it would take me days to talk about all of them. I mean, there’s the really funny slapstick comedy style performances from James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes, some brilliantly slimy performances from Lee Pace and Jackie Earle Haley and even a great bit at the start of the film with Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan.
However, the real star of the film is Tony Kushner’s screenplay. Without exaggeration, this is one of the best scripts to come along for years. There’s equal parts humour, drama and tension in the film and Kushner is able to balance all of these different elements perfectly. This is especially true in the Vote scene. Despite knowing what would happen, the scene was really intense as you wondered whether or not Lincoln’s plan and tactics worked and Kushner handles this scene perfectly. If anyone else wins the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, I think they should give the award back as Kushner is the person most deserving of this award.
On a technical level the film is as good as you’ve come to expect from a Spielberg film. The cinematography, production design and John Williams music are all excellent, special mention having to go to the brilliant music however. The thing is though that there isn’t really anything unique done with the direction but, unlike other films where this may be a problem (looking at you Les Miserables) in this film it works because Spielberg knows where the strength of the film lies, in the script and the acting. There are some brilliant Spielbergian touches in the film, especially at the end and during the Vote but they never overwhelm the film, everything is handled perfectly. With regards to the length of the film, the film needed to be this long. Every single scene was necessary to advancing either the plot or the characters and if any one scene was cut then the film would suffer.
Overall, this film is incredible. A real triumph of acting and writing all held together by Spielberg’s direction. Not only has this film made me really interested in learning more about Lincoln, but it can also restore faith in the good the political system can do if great men are in charge, as Lincoln did with the 13th Amendment.
My Rating: 5/5