Centering a picture on arguably the most beloved figure in American history is no easy task, even for the most celebrated director of our time, Steven Spielberg. To his credit, then, he wisely enlists Daniel Day-Lewis as his collaborator to bring the larger-than-life Abraham Lincoln to life, and on that front the results are nothing short of spectacular. Towards the end of his life, Lincoln was under about as much pressure as you could humanly imagine, and Day-Lewis makes you feel it. Day-Lewis is a once in a generation talent who is famously known for completely immersing himself in his characters for months at a time, and his physical transformation as Lincoln is astonishing. His body seemingly creaks and aches under each movement, his demeanor deathly grave when heís not sharing his knack for storytelling. Much attention has been made over his voice, which is higher pitched than usually has been portrayed but more historically accurate, and Day-Lewis simply makes it another extension of the character we immediately believe. Really, the film could have consisted entirely of Lincoln in a room talking and it would have been a triumph.
So with half the battle already won, Spielberg than goes ahead and proceeds to enlist one of the strongest acting rosters assembled in recent years, just because heís Spielberg and he can. This isnít to say itís automatically the best-acted film of the year, because itís not. The script is so jam-packed with characters hardly any are given ample time to be developed, so he wisely leans on them to do the heavy lifting and come across with strong personalities in short amounts of time. Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn and James Spader are easy standouts but others are shamefully underutilized, including Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincolnís son, Robert. The film clearly is most adept at political maneuvering than Lincolnís personal life, which outside of his relationship with his youngest son leaves much to be desired, and weíre never sure which side of his wifeís weíre supposed to be on.
Now Spielbergís past forays into historical dramas have been decidedly mixed. Last yearís War Horse was his worst outing in more than a decade, while I remember Amistad, his previous film Lincoln most closely resembles, being very underwhelming. Lincoln is easily stronger than both but it does have its dry spells, especially in its first half where it takes quite a while to get going, yet unlike those two it has a well-timed sense of humor to continually fall back on, an unexpected bonus. In addition, it offers some eerie parallels to the modern American political landscape, and while we obviously are not on the brink of a civil war, despite those nut-job secession petitions going around online after Obamaís reelection, much of the rhetoric has remained largely unchanged.
Spielberg also keeps many of his past tendencies more subdued in Lincoln, which was a smart move and makes the overall picture stronger. However, while it might not be as emotionally calculated as some often find his films to be, an unintended side effect is itís not as exciting as weíre used to him delivering, either. Sure, everyone already knows the major plot points, but the same case can be made for Munich or this yearís Argo, and that didnít stop them. Either way, he definitely butchered the ending, which he had set up beautifully to end with Lincoln walking down a hallway, late for his date at the fated theatre, only to extend things another five minutes and squander almost all of the intended impact.
Iíve always been fascinated by the Civil War era ever since I was a little kid, while Iíve been a Spielberg devote just as long. Lincoln has all the ingredients for a modern classic, and thereís little question Day-Lewis deserves his third Oscar for his work here, but as a passion project Spielberg has spent a decade developing, Lincoln never can measure up to his best work, no matter how hard it wants to.