Film Review: Lincoln

LincolnSteven Spielberg needed a big hit. He’s directed some decent pictures – Munich, The Terminal and Catch Me If You Can spring to mind, but he’s arguably not had a critically-acclaimed smash since 1998’s Saving Private Ryan. That’s a long time. He’s also had a couple of duds – hello War of the Worlds and Indiana Jones and the Pointless MacGuffin – so it was about time he showed us that he still has some of the old magic. By taking on Lincoln he’s tackling one of the most important periods of American history, one of their most revered political figures and the subject of racial inequality. Surely, that’s a recipe for success?

Lincoln, in some form, has been knocking around for a while (since 1999, in fact) and has undergone a fair few changes. It is adapted from a small section of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of the 16th President of the United States and focuses on his efforts during January 1865 to have the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the House of Representatives, the Amendment that would effectively abolish slavery. Don’t go expecting any of Abe’s early life or anything regarding The Gettysburg Address; this is no biopic, but a snapshot of just a few weeks.

As you would expect of a film covering such subject matter, it is heavily political and many of the scenes are confined to within four walls and are primarily dialogue driven. Fortunately, playwright Tony Kushner (with whom Spielberg worked with on Munich) has produced a script that is detailed and thorough but also accessible, charming and full of wit. It requires you to pay attention throughout; a missed sideways glance or off-the-cuff remark can result in missing important information, but for those fully immersed in the story (and it’s very easy to be so), it’s incredibly rewarding. Some knowledge of the history of the time and of the American judicial system, however, would be beneficial. Although it the film never excludes those without such knowledge, those that do may get a little more out of it.

Throughout the film, we see Abe in his many guises: family man, raconteur, politician, all of which are as intriguing and beguiling as the next, and much of the credit for that must go to Daniel Day-Lewis. The role of Abraham Lincoln originally belonged to Liam Neeson, but when he pulled out Day-Lewis stepped in to fill his beard. Day-Lewis plays Lincoln with a weariness you would expect of someone in his mid-fifties running the most powerful country in the world, his lanky frame and sunken shoulders heavy with countless burdens, both personal and political. From the opening titles, through the inevitable climax to the rather unnecessary denouement, Day-Lewis gives a masterful portrayal of Honest Abe, and without it the film would simply not be as effective as it is.

An equally impressive performance is that of Tommy Lee Jones as Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, although the overacting Sally Fields and the tacked on Joseph Gordon-Levitt are a little light on character development.

Lincoln is Spielberg at his restrained best. Flanked by impressive cinematography (courtesy of DP Janusz Kaminsky) and a tight script (aside from the odd moment that descends a little too much into slapstick), Spielberg has put together a more personable film that it could otherwise have been and one that should ensure he remains one of Hollywood’s top properties.

4 and a half pigeons

4.5/5 pigeons

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43 thoughts on “Film Review: Lincoln

  1. Popcorn Nights says:

    Enjoyed the review (“Indiana Jones and the Pointless MacGuffin”!) and looking forward to seeing this at some point. Hard/impossible to quantify I know, but would you say it’s Daniel Day-Lewis’s best performance to date?

    • Thanks man! Hmmm, it is a tough one as I’ve not seen a massive amount of his stuff. I would say it is up there with (but very different to) his performance in There Will Be Blood in my opinion. I don’t think the character is quite as interesting but his portrayal is superb.

  2. Popcorn Nights says:

    That’s what I’d hoped for – as good as There Will Be Blood. I’m going to have to do a search or two to find out if he’s ever been bad in anything!

  3. thedavidryan says:

    Top review. This is a film I’ve been wanting to see for some time, so your endorsement has my appetite very wet indeed. (gay)

  4. filmhipster says:

    I’m hoping I get to see this on the weekend. Great review Chris, sounds like I’ll need to bring my ‘thinking cap’ with me.

  5. ckckred says:

    Nice review. I put this pretty high on my top 10 list and I’d say this is Spielberg’s best film since A. I. or Minority Report.

  6. Tyson Carter says:

    Great review buddy 🙂

  7. CMrok93 says:

    I had a wonderful time with this flick, even though I will say that I didn’t love it like everybody else seems to be. However, it’s still a good film and one that will be popping up a lot come Oscar season next year. Good review.

  8. claratsi says:

    4.5 Pigeons, very nice! i wanted to see this and your well written review has confirmed this more. Daniel Day Lewis never lets us down.

  9. keith7198 says:

    Smashing review! I loved Lincoln as well (4.5 from me also)!

  10. Mark Walker says:

    Great review Chris. Can’t wait to see this one. I also like the little pigeon ratings – that’s the first I’ve seen them. Very nice! 🙂

  11. r361n4 says:

    “at his restrained best” is a perfect way to describe Spielberg’s direction in this movie. Excellent review 🙂

  12. ruth says:

    Hey Chris, I can’t believe I’ve been calling you ‘Terry’ all this time, sorry man! I just got back from reading Fernando’s review of the same film. Now you guys got me really interested in this one. My reaction to it has been meh for some reason, but I’ll be renting it for sure. That cast is stellar, but yet DDL surely carried this film through and through. Glad to hear Spielberg’s “at his restrained best” directing this one, unlike the unabashedly schmaltzy War Horse!

    • Haha, no worries Ruth! That’s what I get for having such an ambiguous blog title! It’s all good 🙂
      To be honest, I wasn’t clamoring to see this but it really impressed me and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. DDL does carry the film a little but he’s got some pretty good people around him too, and I’ve not seen War Horse but it does strike me as exactly as you say, a bit schmaltzy.

  13. sati says:

    I really liked the film too and I also felt Field was overacting, her performance wasn’t good and I’m baffled by all the acclaim. I really loved all the scenes when the film focused on politics, Lincoln’s family life moments were kinda boring. But overall the great ensemble really elevated the movie.

    • Think we’re singing off the same hymn sheet with this one! I don’t get the acclaim for Sally Fields either, I thought it was overly melodramatic, and both her and JGL felt very tacked on. I would especially liked to have seen a little more about the fact that she was apparently crazy.

  14. ianthecool says:

    I agree with much of what you’ve said. Thanks for the review.

  15. Dan Heaton says:

    Nice review. I think “restrained” is the perfect word to describe Lincoln, and I mean that in the best way possible. I really liked the movie, though I do agree that Field is awkward and JGL’s storyline wasn’t developed. Those are minor quibbles in a film that digs into the political process in such an interesting way.

    • Thanks Dan. It definitely does explore the nuts and bolts of what happened more than it could have done. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Fields and JGL but, thinking about it, I’m glad they didn’t focus too much on those aspects as it would have impacted on the other, more important, parts of the story. They could have still been better developed though.

      • Dan Heaton says:

        That’s a good point about JGL and Fields. In his case, I can see why they wanted to include it so they could show that Lincoln wasn’t a saint. It just felt weird because it was cut so short. Of course, I wasn’t that interested in it, so maybe that was okay. With Fields, this doesn’t let her off the hook, but I think Mary Todd Lincoln is pretty much a thankless part. She played it very on the nose too. It really showed because DDL was giving such a nuanced performance too.

      • Yeah I don’t know whether DDL’s performance made Fields’ feel a bit off, but from the first scene I thought she overacted it. A lot of people seemed to like her performance though, although I think much of the fact that it’s Sally Fields and some people think she can do no wrong.

  16. Nice review, man. We seem to agree on this one.

  17. I thought DDL and TLJ were fabulous in this film. However I thought the film was typical post Saving Private Ryan schmaltz from Spielberg. That opening scene sort of set the tone and despite some excellent performances I found this rather dull. I also wonder whether those performances have anything to do with Spielberg, I mean its DDL and TLJ we are talking about.

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