Lincoln 1860

Lincoln 1860

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Film Review: Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln"

When I first read years ago that famed director Steven Spielberg was undertaking a project to make a movie about Abraham Lincoln, our greatest President Of The United States, I was excited as well as apprehensive.  To be sure, Mr. Spielberg has directed some of the most beloved films ever made, including "Jaws," "Saving Private Ryan," and "Schindler's List."  He's also given us "Hook" and "Indiana Jones and The Crystal Skull," proof that even a famous director comes up with clunkers.  Then I happened to read that Mr. Spielberg had purchased the filming rights to author Doris Kearns Goodwin's best-selling "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln."  It's a good book, but it's also the "Lincoln-Book-Which-Will-Not-Die" and, in my opinion, undeserving of the excessive hype surrounding it since it was published in 2005.  There are other Lincoln books which are significantly better, such as "Lincoln" by the late historian David Herbert Donald.

Then Mr. Spielberg's interest in "Lincoln" seemed to fall by the wayside as he brought us the aforementioned 4th Indiana Jones movie, "The Adventures of Tintin" and "War Horse."  In fact, Spielberg's original choice to portray Lincoln, esteemed actor Liam Neeson, dropped out of the project claiming that he was  too "old" to effectively play him.

But then the project gathered momentum as it was announced that our greatest living actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, had been cast as Mr. Lincoln.  Sally Field as Mary Lincoln and  Tommy Lee Jones as Representative Thaddeus Stevens also joined the cast.  Between these three actors, they have earned five Academy Awards ® for their craft. Rounding out this exceptional cast is David Strathairn as Secretary of State William H. Seward, Hal Holbrook as Lincoln adviser Preston Blair, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's son Robert.

Mr. Spielberg was wise not to try to create a traditional biopic of Abraham Lincoln.  To do justice to such an extraordinary life as Lincoln's would be nearly impossible in a film of only 2-3 hours in length.  Instead, he chose to focus on Lincoln's fight for passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which forever banned institutionalized slavery in the United States.  It was a wise decision.  It permitted tight focus on one of the most dramatic months in U.S. history, when Congress was trying to decide if the slaves would be truly "forever free."

The acting.  Oh my, the acting.  This is one of the finest overall acting performances by a movie cast in decades.  It almost goes without saying that Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of Abraham Lincoln can immediately be declared the greatest depiction of Lincoln in cinematic history. Mr. Day-Lewis "Lincoln" is the closest we will ever come to the real Lincoln.  We can't possibly know how Abraham Lincoln sounded, but all accounts tell us his voice was pitched high and thin.  To prepare his "voice" for Lincoln, Day-Lewis listened to old recordings of farmers from the regions of Kentucky and Indiana where Lincoln lived.  The resulting voice/accent which Day-Lewis uses might be startling to many audience members, but it is as accurate as it can possibly be.

Daniel Day-Lewis took an entire year to prepare for this part.  He is notoriously choosy about the roles he takes, and this is only his fifth movie of the past fifteen years.  Day-Lewis who is of course British, traveled to Lincoln's town of Springfield, IL to tour the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the Lincoln home, and spent hours talking with Lincoln scholars in his attempt to get to "know" the President.  He studied books about Lincoln's gait, how he held his head and had stooped shoulders.  The result is a truly astonishing  portrayal of Mr. Lincoln.  So exceptional that I felt as if I was in the presence of greatness, not just seeing "Lincoln" as he most likely was, but seeing what is probably the greatest performance of this year.  In fact, it might be judged in the future as one of the most skillful performances ever seen on film.  If Mr. Day-Lewis does not win his third Academy Award ® as Best Actor for this brilliant and stunning performance, it will be a travesty.

Ms. Sally Field is outstanding in her role as the haunted Mary Lincoln.  She is in her own right one of the best actors of her generation, having also won two Best Acting Oscars ® for roles in "Norma Rae" and "Places In The Heart."  Quite simply, this is Ms. Field's best role and work in decades. Her portrayal of Mary Lincoln is the right mix of grief, frustration, and anger at having lost two children already, including Mary and Abraham's seemingly favorite, Willie, who died of typhus in 1862.  The scene where "Mary" berates "Lincoln" for not showing (in her opinion) enough grief for their son is spectacular.  Ms. Field more than holds her own against Mr. Day-Lewis.  Don't be surprised if she is nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Tommy Lee Jones as Representative Thaddeus Stevens, who wanted to have complete equality, not only freedom, for slaves, is also outstanding.  Stevens was himself curmudgeonly as Mr. Jones seems to be in most of his roles, but Jones' performance is a wonderful portrayal of a man who deeply cared about ALL people, especially the ones who were held in slavery.  In fact, a scene toward the end of the movie is highly moving in which Jones conveys the emotions of a man who has just won a long and bitter struggle. I would expect Mr. Jones will achieve his own Oscar ® nomination for his performance.

David Strathairn, always so good, is an excellent Secretary of State "William Henry Seward."  He depicts Seward as a somewhat "stuffy" man of refined tastes, who is such a loyal aide to Abraham Lincoln that he feels free to argue and at times yell at the President.  It is also an accurate to life portrayal.

Spielberg chose the outstanding play and screenwriter Tony Kushner to bring the story to life.  The script is a marvel, with effective dialog and a wonderful historical accuracy.  Spielberg's cinematographer Janusz Kaminski has brought a perfect look and feel to the film.  The colors and lighting are soft which add to the overall effect of the solemn nature of the film.  And Spielberg's directing might be his finest work since "Schindler's List".  It is a subdued, authentic, and restrained direction which is thankfully lacking (mostly) the sentimentality that sometimes appears in his films.

Some parents have asked me in person and via email if this film is age appropriate for children who are 11 or 12 years old.  The film is rated PG-13 for language, a quick scene of brutal hand-to-hand combat, and the gore of dead bodies and amputated limbs.  "Lincoln" himself uses a scatological term in a joke he tells, but the historic Lincoln didn't shy away from language and off-color stories.  The language is not gratuitous nor excessive, and honestly it's probably nothing that children that age haven't already heard on the school bus or playground.  If your child (or children) loves Abraham Lincoln, as so many seem to do, don't hesitate to take them to see this movie.

The performances by the actors and director, the screenplay, and the cinematography all combine to make "Lincoln" a film of extraordinary achievement.  I believe it will withstand the test of time and will be deemed one of Spielberg's greatest films, if not his career masterpiece.  It is a tour de force of drama, emotion, some humor, and enthralling acting.  At the end of the showing, most of the audience applauded and more than a few were in tears.

If I had to rate this film in only one word, that word would be: "Perfection".   Thank you, Steven Spielberg, cast and crew, for bringing Abraham Lincoln to life.


Anonymous said...

Daniel Day, and the rest of the cast is just amazing, but the one who I was most taken-away from was Spielberg, who plays everything safe, intimate, and very subtle. Something I haven’t seen from the guy in awhile. Good review Geoff.

Courtney said...

Thank you for this review of the film. I'm really looking forward to seeing it. It sounds absolutely amazing. During the piece on 60 Minutes they mentioned that Spielberg had been working on this film for 12 years! I appreciate you taking the time to talk about the film.

jwill said...

I just saw this movie Mr Elliott, and your review was perfect! The movie was excellent.

I must say my favorite character was Tommy Lee Jones portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens. It was amazing, and very entertaining. Lastly, the scene where he takes the actual copy to his mate Lydia Hamilton Smith was so touching!

The scene of Lincoln on his death bed, while the minister said "Now he belongs to the ages."

One of the greatest movies I have ever scene!

Thank you for your review.


Gadfly said...

I too, thought it was amazing ... however, judging by his comments on NPR's Fresh Air, Tony Kushner somewhat misunderstands the Second Inaugural Address. My review is at the link, which has an internal link to a second blog post detailing how Kushner is wrong.

Rebecca said...

I just saw this movie today, and I was incredibly impressed. I felt like I was watching the real Lincoln himself! I agree that the acting and directing is outstanding. It really showed Lincoln as a human being with all his mannerisms, his family relations, and the toll it took on him. The audience also applauded and some were in tears at the showing I went to. The theater was packed!

Geoff, do you know of any historical inaccuracies in the film?

Rebecca said...

I just saw this movie today and I was incredibly impressed! I felt like I was watching the real Lincoln himself! I agree that the acting and directing were well done. I like how it showed the humanness of Lincoln with his mannerisms, his family relationships, and the toll the war took on him. But it also did a good job portraying him as a savvy political figure too. At the showing I went to, the audience also applauded and some were in tears.

Geoff, do you know of any historical inaccuracies in the movie?

Unknown said...

One of the finest movies I have ever seen. The reviewer was spot-on and I was and am in agreement with all his remarks. In Mr. Spielberg's body of work, this is the finest. Not a whiff of political correctness.

If there are not several Academy Awards forthcoming, it is a sad day for moviedom.

P.s., I follow the Civil War somewhat, as my Uncle was a West Point Grad and a Union General in that war. He issued the Order for Black Troops to carry weapons into battle, which was illegal at the time. The 54th MA in the movie Glory was under his command and possible due to his orders.

Tamara said...

It was especially interesting for me to hear him talk about the trial of Melissa Goings in the movie. She was my 4th great grandmother. I'm not sure how much he had to do with her escape, but it did make a good story when talking about the issues with the Emancipation Proclamation - and makes me want to read more about Lincoln.

Nicole and Scott Kesten said...

Lincoln moved me... first time i have heard an audience clap at the credits. it really was great.. appreciate your write up.

Marc said...

I loved this movie, and I was looking for such a blog on which to express my opinions. I consider myself a history fan and a Civil War buff. I grew up in the South (Richmond, VA), and my history classes tended to portray him in a more neutral light, i.e. not necessarily as a great man or President, but rather somewhat of an opportunist. I could give specifics, but I won't at this point. What I would like to express is that is a new found admiration, and in fact, affection for Lincoln. I think the admiration comes from the fact of the story I witnessed is one where Lincoln was going to push through the 13th Amendment, not to end the war or stick it to the South , but because it was the right thing to do. The affection comes probably how he was portray by Daniel Day Lewis. Like you, I felt like I was in the presence of Abraham Lincoln.

I was also fascinated with the character of Thaddeus Stevens, whom I had to do some quick research on after seeing the movie. We were never really taught about him in history class in VA. In fact, I took a class on the Civil War in college, and I don't recall his name coming up. He is one of my new heroes in American history. He was extremely principled to the point where he held his tongue for the good of the Amendment.

Anyway, thanks for this blog.

Unknown said...

Lewis portrayal of Lincoln is as close as we will ever be to seeing Abraham Lincoln as a living speaking person. The way he walked , his country high pitched twang, his joke telling all reaches perfection. This movie will sweep the Oscars!
The attention to detail on such mundane things as the inkwell on the cabinet desk is just unbelievable! I purchased LIncolns wooden inkwell from the Dr Lattimer Sale in 2008. Lincoln carried with him to Washington from his days in the Illinois House. The set designers must have combed thru auction catalogs, exhibits and artifacts to search out the real deal. I was shocked to see the inkwell perfectly recreated right down to the three pencil holes in the top! No one would have noticed but me? This movie is perfection!

Unknown said...

While campaigning for President in 1860 Lincoln promised not to abolish slavery if it meant dissolution of the Union. It was the only substantive campaign promise from his first presidential election that he did not keep. In 1863 he used his war powers to try to disrupt the south by issuing his Emancipation Proclamation. In 1864 he worked for months to help sway enough votes to push the 13th Amendment to Abolish Slavery through the House, as he knew that the Emancipation Proclamation would no longer be enforceable after the war. He did all this while fighting a gruelling war of attrition to try to reunite the country by military force. Lincoln's critical directive had always been to reunite the USA; so much so in fact that one year into the war, when the Union was losing battle after battle to the Confederacy, Lincoln said in a public speech that he would accept back the southern states into the Union slavery, chains and all. Obviously by July of 1863 with dispositive victories at Vicksburg and Gettysburg he had the South on the run. By then Lincoln's resolve had hardened, and the demise of slavery was in his sites, and there was no longer any turning back. He would not relent until slavery's end was in his grasp. Beautifully told in Spielberg's film, it is a remarkable American story of uncommon valour and indefatigable fortitude.

The Dake Page said...

Thank you for a well-thought out and insightful review of a great movie. I concur with all of your comments about the acting. Simply the best I've seen in a long time.

Thank you again for the review and for keeping such a wonderful Lincoln blog and FB page.

David J. Kent

Unknown said...

Spielberg’s film, ‘Lincoln’, is actually fairly accurate. Lincoln tried very hard to reunite the Union, and once reunification became an inevitability, he then tried quite hard to gain a legal standard for the abolition of slavery that would actually hold up in peace time and for all time. While it is true that one year into the war, when the Union was losing every battle, Lincoln stated publicly that the Union would take back the southern states “slaves, chains and all”, by the third year of the war, when the Union was solidifying an eventual victory by taking Vicksburg (thereby gaining control of the Mississippi River), and at the same time turning back the Confederates at Gettysburg, Lincoln no longer had any intention of permitting reunification before he gained the abolition of slavery. He wanted to get it done before bringing the southern states back into the Union, and he did get it done, period. While it is true that before the war Lincoln had mentioned sending all the slaves to English speaking Liberia on the African continent or even a completely segregated U.S. society as possible solutions to the slavery issue, these quickly fell away once he was elected, and it is highly unlikely that he would have ever gotten behind such an arrangement in any event.
— Ariel Hessing

Marilyn Jess said...

I saw Lincoln in a matinee on Thanksgiving day in Albany, NY. The audience was small, and attentive. At the end, no clapping. Whispers among folk as we left. I got into the elevator to leave the theatre, one woman among about a dozen men and boys from this audience.

No talking on our three floor trip down--silence, and might I say, stunned silence at what everyone had just seen. I'll never forget that short ride, the somber and thoughtful expressions on their faces. I have never seen people react this way to a film.

I think the film accomplished so much more than being entertainment. It made people think. No higher praise to the film makers, I think.

Like Schindler's List, the film Lincoln is a ground breaker, and all freedom loving people should see it.

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