Stars Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson. Directed by Steven Spielberg from a script by Tony Kushner, based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” Rated PG-13. 149 minutes. Critic’s grade: A
It’s easy enough to get lost in the hype of the men & their movie — Steven Spielberg, probably still the most famous director in the world; Daniel Day-Lewis, perhaps the most accomplished screen actor working today; and Abraham Lincoln, the most beloved U.S. president in history.
Spielberg can do no wrong, and, really, how wrong could anyone go with a film about Lincoln, as played by Day-Lewis, unless, of course, the movie were about Lincoln’s secret history as a vampire slayer (by the way, THAT movie was far less awful and more fun than it ever had a right to be).
So, not surprisingly, “Lincoln,” one of the fall season’s most highly anticipated films, on the big screen is every bit the Oscar bait it looked like on paper. Herewith, 10 good reasons to see “Lincoln,” in no particular order of importance.
1 — Spielberg grabs viewers from the get-go, with an opening battle sequence that’s all blood and mud, brutal hand-to-hand, stabbing-and-shooting Civil War combat, reminiscent of the start of “Saving Private Ryan.” War is hell, and the filmmaker seems loathe to glamorize it. Guts first, the glory of Lincoln’s accomplishments later.
2 — At nearly 2 1/2 hours, “Lincoln” is nearly the perfect length: If it were shorter, key details would have had to be excised, while making it longer might have weighed it down. Adapted by playwright Tony Kushner from sections of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography “Team of Rivals,” the film feels very personal, thanks in part to a script that digs deep into the character of the characters onscreen, a staggering 145 speaking roles. And yet the movie still offers a broad, believable macro view of the time — just past the mid 19th Century — and the place, a rapidly maturing America, still rough around the edges, desperately trying to avoid a permanent split.
3 — All of the above, from beautiful but terrible vistas of battlefields strewn with bodies to shots of burning buildings and an image of Lincoln, walking hand in hand with his young son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), are gorgeously photographed by Oscar winner Janusz Kaminski (“Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List,” “Minority Report”). Spielberg’s team got the look of the interiors and the costumes right, too.
3 — Day-Lewis bears an uncanny resemblance to the historical photographs of Lincoln, and his vocal mannerisms match some on-record descriptions of Lincoln’s voice, which comes off as neither as deep nor as stentorian as one might expect. The physicality — that long, tall body and a slightly gangly gait, seem apropos, too.
4 — Forget the Hall of Presidents saint: While Lincoln is portrayed as someone who is kind to family and friends, he’s also a regular guy prone to storytelling and jokes, some of which are slightly off color. On occasion, he gets into verbal spats with the First Lady, over some of the usual things — including parenting issues — that have always caused friction between married partners.
5 — While he had a conscience even larger than his physical stature, Lincoln was a gifted, natural and relentlessly determined politician, as the film underscores.
6 — Spielberg and Kushner offer an apropos focus on how Lincoln deals with the heavy burdens of the office during the period near the end of the life, in early 1865. He is working on twin, interrelated goals: The end of the very bloody war, and with it a path for the South’s return to the Union, AND the passage of the 13th amendment, outlawing slavery outright. The amendment, passed a year earlier by the Senate, needs stronger support in the House of Representatives, particular from Thaddeus Stevens (a fiery Tommy Lee Jones), a quick-witted, politically crafty abolition activist who believes the amendment doesn’t go far enough.
7 — In addition to Day-Lewis, the film is bolstered by a first-rate supporting cast, with particularly strong performances by Jones; David Strathairn, as Secretary of State William Seward, Lincoln’s confidant; Sally Field, as a troubled Mary Todd Lincoln; Jackie Earle Haley, as a wormy, downtrodden Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln, frustrated that his parents won’t allow him to join the Union army; and a team of clever if sometimes clumsy political operatives played by James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes.
8 — The sober seriousness of all that takes place in the film is offset by moments of lightness and even light humor, the latter particularly prominent during sequences featuring that trio of off-the-books vote wranglers, and in moments when Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) appears utterly exasperated by his boss’s penchant for storytelling.
9 — Spielberg skips the sensationalism of the assassination and goes straight to the bloody aftermath (one quibble: the final scenes, at Lincoln’s death bed, look a bit too much like the ascension of a Holy Man).
10 — Because of much of the above, “Lincoln” makes the type of Hollywood entertainment — big, bold, smart but not overly talky, medium-paced — with potential to bring history alive for even younger viewers. That’s no mean feat.