To many, British-born actor Daniel Day-Lewis represents the pinnacle of thespian prowess. Director Steven Spielberg is considered among Hollywood's best and has the Oscar gold to back it up. And Abraham Lincoln is one of the most important figures in U.S. history.
So it stands to reason that a union of the three would result in can't-miss cinema. And, for the most part, it does. Day-Lewis shines with yet another towering performance; Spielberg directs with a meticulous, deft touch; and the exquisite production values (especially the costuming and set design) establish the time period beautifully.
But Spielberg's "Lincoln" -- which focuses on Lincoln's tragically shortened second term in office, the conclusion of the Civil War and the president's fight to pass the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) -- plays a bit like a $50 million history lesson. And while that's a boon for history buffs, the pacing suffers sporadically. All of the back-and-forth politicking doesn't help.
"Lincoln" has more in common with Spielberg's "War Horse" than, say, "Saving Private Ryan" or "Schindler's List." Still, Spielberg and his team (including an A-list cast that features a spotlight-stealing performance by Tommy Lee Jones) deserve a wealth of credit for embracing a monumental task and succeeding admirably.
The film follows Lincoln (Day-Lewis) as he seeks to outlaw slavery and, thus, end the bloody Civil War. Lincoln and his fellow Republicans -- many of who are themselves ambivalent about passage of the 13th Amendment -- need a handful of votes from the mostly pro-slavery Democrats. Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn, born for roles like this) turns to help from a conniving but convincing trio: W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson).
Meanwhile, the battle over slavery rages on in the House of Representatives, with stone-faced Pennsylvanian Thaddeus Stevens (Jones, brilliant) fighting for abolition with every breath. Lincoln juggles nation-changing decisions with personal-life issues: his wife Mary's (Sally Field) debilitating migraines, his older son Robert's (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) military ambitions and his young son Tad's (Gulliver McGrath of "Dark Shadows") upbringing.
Day-Lewis captures Lincoln as well as any actor could. From his vocal inflections to his mannerisms, it's clear he truly immersed himself in the difficult role. In one early scene he lies down beside Tad, who has dozed off in front of the fireplace. The moment humanizes Lincoln and allows the viewer to see him as more than just a good president -- we see him as a good person.
A slew of recognizable actors are virtually shoehorned into the film. And while Spader, for instance, is fantastic as the tactless Bilbo (helping with needed comic relief), Gordon-Levitt is more window dressing with very limited screen time. And while most viewers will be talking about Day-Lewis, it's Jones' performance as Stevens that lends the film the vibrant spark it needed and would not have otherwise had.
Spielberg is among the best at presenting "cinema with a conscience." Sure, he's directed plenty of popcorn flicks along the lines of "Jaws" and "Jurassic Park," but he also brings moral and emotional punch in pictures like "Schindler's List," "Amistad" and "Lincoln" (a scene in which Lincoln talks about Euclid's Elements is profound).
Four score and seven years from now, Spielberg's "Lincoln" may well be considered the most accurate and honest film ever made about the 16th president.