Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln may be the most beautifully photographed, best-acted procedural ever filmed. The core of the film is not Lincoln’s life, or death, or any of his many personal struggles. It’s the ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, and what Lincoln did to make that happen. It’s Law and Order in the House of Representatives. It’s gorgeous to look at, solid, slow and wordy. That’s not so much a disparagement as a description. The story, the acting and the cinematography save the day.
The Best Actor race for this year is over. It’s Daniel Day-Lewis all over the place. He’ll likely win every major award and is a shoo-in for the Oscar. His performance is a sight to behold, and to enjoy, and will be a master class for every serious actor from this point on. His Lincoln is a man who has been crushed by life, perhaps several times over, and yet has emerged stronger, kinder, and smarter for the trials. He is direct, even bluntly so, when he needs to be, yet elusive and cagey at other times. Philip Seymour Hoffman as The Master offers the only performance in this league this year, and in many ways, Hoffman nails his part as much as Day-Lewis. But no one but critics seemed interested in The Master, and Lincoln is the kind of film that wins Oscars for its central performance: good enough, but not overshadowing the superior quality of its lead’s acting. It’s by far the best thing in the film, and it’s a performance for the ages. He has effectively erased nearly every other interpretation of Abraham Lincoln with this one.
Happily, the excellent acting doesn’t stop with him. Sally Field continues to show her skill and range as a tormented Mary Lincoln. The film presents her as suffering greatly from the loss of her son Willie just a few years before, though other mental or emotional issues are suggested by her behaviors. In some ways, her performance is also a master acting class, but in ways that hurt the film. Here she is whip-smart and sarcastic, there she is bitter and clueless, then self-aware but unhappy about it, and then irrational and unhinged. Field pulls all these together as best as she can, but the film presents her in bits and pieces, in spite of the actress’s best efforts.
Tommy Lee Jones is threatening, like Philip Seymour Hoffman and others of that rank, of being so consistently good that we don’t notice how good he is. Here he is great, but it’s almost lost in Day-Lewis’s shadow and the general good work of the cast. And here is one of the problems with the cast. Other than DDL, who so disappears into his part as to hide all vestiges of a working actor, the cast of Lincoln is packed to the gills with recognizable faces, often distractingly so. The most successful at transcending their own persona is Sally Field. She will always be Sally Field, but she manages to break through by sheer virtue of talent here. But Tommy Lee Jones is still Tommy Lee Jones, no matter what he does with his hair. And then there is Oscar nominee (ON) David Strathairn, ON Hal Holbrook, and ON John Hawkes, who will become another ON this year for The Sessions. Then there are ON Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, and Jared Harris, all doing yeoman work but unable to hide their recognizability. Worst of all in that category is the talented Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the Lincolns’ oldest son Robert. He does a fine job, but there’s no hiding the fact that it’s the star of 500 Days of Summer, Premium Rush and Inception playing the role. Perhaps the one who fares best here is James Spader, nearly unrecognizable under a one-for-the-ages moustache, and offering a juicy, slightly overripe performance that pulls the film in a much-needed comic direction, risking a buffoonish quality in his character and actions to breath some life into the oft-times trudging proceedings.
The real problem is one that few will point out. As a screenwriter, the highly respected and highly rewarded Tony Kushner is a great playwright. The solid structure is there in Lincoln, and Kushner knows how to build dramatic tension, but the wordiness makes Joseph Mankiewicz’ All about Eve seem like a silent film. There are plenty of opportunities to show off great talk—Lincoln’s folksy stories, his cabinet meetings, his talks with Mary, the rough-and-tumble of political clashes as the bill moves forward. But perhaps the most effective moment in the film isn’t a verbal exchange, but the quiet move of young Tad Lincoln as he wordlessly crawls on his dad’s back as Lincoln lies down next to his sleeping son on the floor and quietly awakens him to get him into bed. The move is tender and speaks volumes about their relationship and the “quality time” they’ve obviously spent together. The film needs a lot more of those kinds of visual moments. It’s never anything but lovely to look at and delightful to the ear, though John Williams’ music is a bit much at times. But Spielberg is such a visual director that you wonder how much he sacrificed to get every last word in. It’s similar to the stranglehold that the music had over the direction of Phantom of the Opera, which ended up being a music video rather than a film. We certainly get a great history lesson in Lincoln, and we never lose our place in the story. But the film borders on being illustrated at times rather than filmed.
Some have touted this as Spielberg’s best. That’s still Schindler’s List, which has the same breadth but the energy and momentum that Lincoln lacks. I’m hoping that the pictorial excesses of War Horse and the static nature of Lincoln are temporary hiccoughs, and that Spielberg gets back to making move-ies.