Despite the film’s title, the previews showed that the film wouldn’t cover Lincoln’s entire life, but just the Civil War. The Civil War only physically figures into a handful of scenes in the film, with just one legitimate battle scene in the movie, the opening shots. On top of that, the film actually only covers the last year-and-a-half of the war. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s acclaimed biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the scope of the film is well chosen in its limitation and event choice.
That does not mean that the film is flawless, by any means. In an effort to establish the majority of its characters, the film has a slow first quarter. This first quarter could have used some better performances from a few parties, parties that come across well later on but couldn’t handle the dirty work of establishing their characters in an interesting way. After this, the film picks up speed, making for a surprisingly exciting, witty, incredibly involving last three-quarters of film.
As I sort of hinted above, Tony Kushner’s script is really great but not truly fantastic. Those early moments I mentioned earlier take away from what comes later on, which is an absolutely incredible script. His script is dramatic and emotion while simultaneously witty. Despite the slow start, the start does effectively establish his characters for what turns into an involving politics-saturated movie that oftentimes borders on political thriller. He writes his characters well, almost never putting Lincoln on a godlike pedestal and wonderfully writing Mary Todd Lincoln’s breakdowns to show her as the loving, supportive woman full of humanity she was initially as well as the woman who hired seers and gypsies and for whose sanity Lincoln feared deeply after the death of the couple’s second-youngest son, Willie. The film takes some historical liberties, but nothing so egregious as to destroy the movie’s reputability in the name of drama. I’m an American history buff, though no expert, especially not on the Civil War, but I found no real historical inaccuracies to speak of. Kushner’s script suffers early on, a fact I attribute in equal portion to Kushner as to some of the acting parties involved.
In the technical departments, the film thrives. John Williams’ score is singularly creative, a comment I almost never have about one of his scores. His piano-based theme is fantastic and, in comparison to most of his other scores, uniquely quiet, allowing the film to take precedence. Too often his scores have been too loud and have taken away too much from the films they’ve been in. I know I’ve already said this, but I can’t stress it enough: This score is refreshingly suppressed and fabulously creative, two things that I haven’t said about a John Williams’ score since the first Harry Potter, and that I haven’t been absolutely secure in since Saving Private Ryan. I'm adding this in early February: after listening to the score several times since I saw the film, I am continuously elated by how brilliantly John Williams takes several of his cues musically from Aaron Copland (my favorite American classical composer and probably in my top 5 overall) and molds them into his own. The two more upbeat "Western"-themed pieces are brilliantly inspired by Rodeo and I cannot love them enough.
The production design is superb, as is the costume design. What really steals the show, however, is the makeup, which absolutely transforms a few of the actors, and Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography is gorgeous. Each and every shot is spellbinding. Even the more personal, interior shots take your breath away.
Steven Spielberg’s direction is great and very personal, much in the same way that Schindler’s List and Catch Me If You Can Are, for reasons all their own, though Schindler’s reasons for being so personal seem to stem from similar ones to Lincoln’s.
The acting is superb, led, of course, by Daniel Day-Lewis’s (My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood, In the Name of the Father, Gangs of New York) monumental performance. Day-Lewis is, by my reckoning, the best actor today doing serious acting, and arguably the best alive not named Nicholson, Pacino, De Niro, or Duvall. He has given around 10-15 lead performances in his career and 4 of them have been nominated for Best Actor and 2 have won. As Abraham Lincoln, Day-Lewis, a method actor who has received little criticism in his career, most of which has been because he is over the top in his character portrayals, gives an incredibly restrained performance here. He creates an imposing and powerful, yet insular, shy, and respectful man. His performance is quiet, something that makes it resonate all the more. His scenes with his family members are very strong and his scenes with his political allies and foes are perfection embodied. He deserves to win his third Best Actor award, and I think it will be a major injustice if he does not win. He never wastes a scene, over even a moment within a scene. His scenes with Sally Field are incredibly poignant, especially as he shows the fear he has for her mental well-being and the conflicting opinions he has about how to deal with it.
Sally Field (Norma Rae, Brothers and Sisters), as Mary Todd Lincoln, is also quite good. She effectively brings to life the mental inquietude that Mary faced after the death of Willie without ever going over the edge or creating a caricature of her. Though not nearly as good as her Oscar-winning performance in Norma Rae, as Mrs. Lincoln, she is Oscar-nomination-worthy, though not win-worthy.
As Radical Republican wing leader Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive, No Country for Old Men, JFK) gives a fabulous scene-stealing performance. He is absolutely hysterical. His delivery is perfect and his passionate speeches are incredibly powerful. Most importantly, however, is his great depiction of the fact that, despite his passionate political views, he’s willing to say whatever is necessary to achieve his ends.
The list of notable actors portraying other important political figures is long, and the performances vary in flavor and effectiveness. The best performances by such people come from David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck.) as Secretary of State William Seward, who is impassioned, often clashing with Lincoln’s opinions, but always remaining close friends, and Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies) as Representative Fernando Wood in an appropriately vindictive performance. Gloria Reuben (ER) is also quite good emotionally as Mrs. Lincoln’s housemaid, Elizabeth Keckley.
The trio of operative called in by Strathairn is entertaining. James Spader (The Practice, Boston Legal), John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone, Martha Marcy May Marlene), and Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) are all effective as William N. Bilbo, Robert Latham, and Richard Schell, respectively. Spader, especially, is quite entertaining and provides excellent comedic outings.
Hal Holbrook (All the President’s Men, Into the Wild) is, as usual, good as Francis Preston Blair and Walton Goggins (The Shield, Justified) is satisfactory as Congressman Wells A. Hutchins.
Other players such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Brick, The Dark Knight Rises, (500) Days of Summer), David Costabile (Suits, Solitary Man), Gulliver McGrath (Dark Shadows), Jackie Earle Haley (Breaking Away, Little Children), Jared Harris (Mad Men, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows), and S. Epatha Merkerson (Law & Order) are all good as Robert Todd Lincoln, James Ashley, Tad Lincoln, Alexander H. Stephens, Ulysses S. Grant, and Lydia Smith
Perhaps the most important and impressive part about the movie is the inclusion of African-Americans in the plot. The presence of African-American infantrymen at the beginning hints that this won’t be a film about the righteous white populace of the north defeating the whites of the south, thereby freeing the lowly black race in unpaid servitude. Instead, these black soldiers promise a film that gives as much credit to blacks as it possibly can historically. The rest of the film follows suit magnificently. There’s one line in this film uttered by a Democratic representative about how there’s no possible way that blacks will ever be congressmen, the irony being that the first African-American congressman were two senators from Mississippi, Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce, both of whom came to office in the 1870s almost immediately after Reconstruction. (Bruce was even elected.) This just makes the usage of African-Americans all the more powerful.
The film shows spectacularly well the huge obstacles that impeded the path to equality, the ironclad position, the unwavering personalities, the political factions and maneuvering. It wonderfully shows how difficult it was for Lincoln and his political allies to achieve their goals. The film, especially in its second half, is amazing in its ability to transform potentially boring subject matter, lawmaking, into one of the best political thrillers I’ve ever seen. Despite this masterful three-quarters of film, the beginning is still slow and plodding and sometimes awkward. ★★★★½ out of ★★★★★.