Lincoln (2012) Review
It would appear the general scholarly consensus is that “Lincoln” is a reasonably accurate retelling of the final four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life and in particular his efforts to get the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives, which is a relief after 2012’s ludicrous vampire-slaying take on the early life of the 16th President of the United States Of America.
As has already been recognised by an Oscar, Daniel Day-Lewis is flawless as Abraham Lincoln, a performance so rich in conviction and subtlety that he completely convinces as a quiet, thoughtful and principled man aware of both the immense power he wields and the responsibilities he bears.
Despite his mesmeric performance, the film suffers from a slow, hesitant start and even though Spielberg starts proceedings by briefly throwing in one of his now almost obligatory chaotic battle scenes, the whole affair feels quite sterile and distant. At any moment you half expect the smooth rich tones of, say, a Morgan Freeman voice-over to begin and a dry but handsomely staged history documentary unfold before you.
The film really sparks into life once the President’s ambitions and motives are made clear and it becomes a race for numbers to get the amendment through congress, bring some of the wonderful supporting cast into play. Nobody, however, injects more life into this film than Tommy Lee Jones, who comes damn close to stealing the picture right out from under Day-Lewis as the morose and cantankerous Republic Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a man with his own, more personal motive for helping the President. David Strathairn also impresses as Lincoln’s confidante and seemingly closest ally Secretary of State William H Seward while James Spader adds some much-needed levity to the proceedings as the roguish Republican lobbyist William Bilbo.
With the dependable but unspectacular Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and an oddly disengaged turn by Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, the real glimpses of the family man behind the presidential façade are provided by the interaction between Lincoln and his younger son Tad, played charmingly by Gulliver McGrath.
The rest of the cast reads like a who’s who of American character actors who embrace their characters’ virtues and follies superbly and it’s a credit to all involved that the final vote on the amendment carries with it a genuine sense of suspense and tension despite the historically famous outcome.
Although the film reaches a natural, satisfying and triumphant climax following the passing of the amendment, the film is unable to resist the temptation to linger on for the most famous moment of Lincoln’s life: its end. This results in a drawn-out, largely unnecessary coda that skips in fits and starts over the three months between the amendments passing and that fateful trip to Ford’s Theatre. The moment arrives and is done with a clever bait-and-switch approach that shows us nothing of John Wilkes-Booth or his actions but instead leaves it to Gulliver McGrath’s Tad Lincoln to embody the tragedy and heartbreak of an entire nation. The fact that he does so magnificently almost make the gratuitous last half hour of this two and a half-hour film worthwhile. Almost.
“Lincoln” succeeds through the power of its amazing cast, propelled by the committed performances of the lead players and supported by lavish attention to period detail. The missing element for me is Spielberg. The film is handsome and well-made but it feels like Spielberg’s most anonymous picture to date. There is precious little sign of him in the fabric of the film and almost nothing of his usual visual flair. If this were directed by almost anybody else, I’m sure I would have scored it higher, but I expect more from Spielberg. Maybe that’s unfair, but it’s a reflection of his past body of work that a film so exceptionally well crafted as “Lincoln” still feels a little bit of a letdown.