Steven Spielberg's Lincoln isn't a particularly brilliant film when examined for its writing, its cinematography, or even its very good but still only above par direction. It's singular extraordinary element is Daniel Day-Lewis's performance. And yet, calling it a mere "performance" sells it a bit short; rather it should be considered his embodiment or full on transformation into one of the greatest men to ever hold our nation's highest office. Day-Lewis's turn as Lincoln gives the film everything it needs to be worthy for anyone to recommend it to everyone around them, however it also fundamentally sabotages the film. It's almost comical that what distracts from the film's overall effectiveness is not a few historical discrepancies or liberties taken with truth, but rather that Daniel Day-Lewis's stint as Lincoln is too good and so our minds are shocked when we have to reconcile what seems to be the living and breathing reanimation of Abraham Lincoln himself with everyone else in the frame who appear to be the likes of Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Tommy Lee Jones playing dress up. They're all excellent in their own right, but this time that just wasn't enough.
With the American Civil War raging, President Abraham Lincoln struggles with his personal desire to see the end of slavery in the United States and the pressure from Democrats and Republicans alike to lay out the necessary conditions that will lead to a swift conclusion to the bloody conflict. He knows that if he pursues the latter route as everyone suggests, he'll lose all leverage to pursue abolition and thus likely won't see it done by the conclusion of his presidency. At the same time, the pursuit of the former might draw out the war and thus lead to even more loss of life and an even sharper divide within congress. While a number of political avenues are open to him to pursue both lines of action, that of abolition requires far more finesse and under the table dealing -- all of which takes time the country doesn't want to give him. Lincoln, however, is no stranger to the tragedies of the war he risks prolonging; he and first lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Field) have lost their eldest on the front lines and now their second son (Gordon-Levitt) longs to follow in his brother's footsteps to serve his country.
Far more political than many might have imagined a film about Lincoln's presidency during the Civil War would be, Lincoln focuses on the factors that wore on Lincoln's conscience as he engaged in tiresome negotiations within his own party and the daunting task of securing the number of votes necessary while seemingly having nothing to do with it. Through it all, Day-Lewis never falters in his commitment to playing Lincoln without even the smallest traces of his own personality just beneath the surface. The transformation is complete and engrossing and every word he utters in his Lincoln persona spellbinds the audience. Contributing to the illusion is the excellent makeup and prosthetics work that morph his face into a nearly picture-perfect likeness of the President. While it's a bit much to say no one will ever play Lincoln so convincingly ever again, at the present moment Daniel Day-Lewis's take is as close to complete reanimation of the man as we've ever been.
And therein lies the film's problem: while the rest of the cast are all incredible actors and they all play their parts admirably, whenever they have to share the screen with Day-Lewis as Lincoln, it looks and feels as if Lincoln is on-screen with actors in costumes. No one else is nearly as convincing in their roles and so DDL's performance simultaneously becomes the film's greatest achievement and hindrance. He's just too good, and so with each line by David Strathairn or Lee Pace, we remember they're just actors wearing wigs. It's a flaw in the suspension of disbelief: when one performance is so good that we don't need to suspend our disbelief, it becomes hard to do it selectively for the rest of the performers.
Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner compensate for this as well they can in constructing a tightly wound narrative that keeps the story moving ever forward, while giving the all-star cast plenty of moments to shine in often wryly humorous scenes. Even though they never rise to Day-Lewis's level, they're never without a few key moments that make their addition to the film notable. If there's one exception to this rule it's Sally Field who seems to have a hard time finding the line between dramatic license and believability in her portrayal of the (historically) slightly unhinged Mary Todd Lincoln. In some scenes her deft touch is just the right amount, but in others she seems to get too carried away with the manic personality of the first lady and the moments become obnoxious and not just painfully awkward.
Though Kushner and Spielberg may have "streamlined" history for the sake of making the film a manageable length, it remains the conveyance of the most uncanny portrayal of Abraham Lincoln (if not necessarily his deeds) to date. Unless you're a hardcore history buff, it's likely those historical liberties aren't what will trip you up, it'll be the sight of a living and breathing Lincoln clone trying to talk sense into a flustered Sally Field.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
A number of production featurettes cover the realization of the film from page to screen, shooting on location in Richmond, Virginia, Daniel Day-Lewis's method as an actor, the recreation of the era through detailed sets and props. Additionally, we get a look into the post-production elements of the film including editing, sound design, and scoring, as well as an overall summary of the entire production process as led by Spielberg and the cast (just don't expect Day-Lewis to break character). The combo set includes the film on Blu-ray, DVD, and as an iTunes digital copy.
"Lincoln" is on sale March 26, 2013 and is rated PG13. Drama. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner. Starring Daniel Day Lewis, David Strathairn, James Spader, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones.