Lincoln is more of a political story than a biopic

Lincoln Daniel Day Lewis

‘Lincoln,’ the long awaited biopic from Steven Spielberg, turns out to be a much better story about the fight for the 13th Amendment than a story about the 16th President.

 

It’s funny … the last film I reviewed was Flight, and I implied in the title of that review that the film likely wasn’t about what audiences thought it was going to be. In many ways, I had the same reaction after watching Lincoln. The film is not a life history of the nation’s 16th President; in fact, the story largely stays within the final months of the Civil War. While the film does spend a great deal of time trying to explore Abraham Lincoln as a cinematic character, Lincoln the story is much more about the passage of the 13th Amendment – at least in the House of Representatives.

While the film does spend a great deal of time trying to explore Abraham Lincoln as a cinematic character, Lincoln the story is much more about the passage of the 13th Amendment.

Since the film is named Lincoln, I’ve got to start there; Daniel Day-Lewis was phenomenal. His was truly one of those performances where the actor disappears into the character. Day-Lewis plays the President as a great man with a great many burdens laid upon him. Independent of the fact that he is struggling to hold the country together with spit and baling wire, he had difficulties interacting with members of his family. His wife Mary struggled considerably with the deaths of their two sons Edward and William – though the latter’s was much more impactful in the timespan of the story. Lincoln’s eldest son Robert – Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a mostly wasted role — fought to join the military, despite the protestations of his father and the potential impact to Mary’s sanity. Day-Lewis’ Lincoln seems to physically carry each of these problems with him as he manages the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th Amendment. This President always has a smile and a story for the troops – one that often, if not always, seems to have little to do with the situation at hand – but is certainly a man whose time in office had a great impact on him physically and emotionally.

The backroom dealing – both above and below board – that Seward and Bilboe and then later the President himself participated in, speak to a time when a divided country could still work together.

Much of the time however, the personal moments with Lincoln seemed tacked on and mixed in between the much-better political story. Watching the President’s proxies, including the always-great David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward and James Spader’s party operative William Bilboe, work with tenuous allies — like Tommy Lee Jones’ “radical” Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens – and desperate enemies was a great deal of fun. For a former political junkie like myself, watching how differently the House of Representatives operated back then (in a loud, confrontational way not unlike the House of Commons in the UK) was fascinating. The backroom dealing – both above and below board – that Seward and Bilboe and then later the President himself participated in, speak to a time when a divided country could still work together.

Lincoln probably has one of the biggest, most talented casts in a film I’ve ever seen. The IMDB listing for the full cast is an embarrassment of riches. There were several incredibly talented actors (the film was surprisingly short of female characters as Sally Field’s Mary Lincoln and Gloria Ruben were the only actresses with large-ish roles) many of whom I didn’t recognize the first three or four times they were on-screen – and one or two I didn’t catch until the end credits … I’m looking at you, Lee Pace.

There were several scenes that ended with seemingly 10-15 second shots of Lincoln slowly walking out of the room. Lincoln took the “show, don’t tell” axiom of filmmaking a step or two too far for my tastes.

I didn’t expect to walk away from Lincoln so split on the separate parts that made the whole. As I prepared my thoughts for this review, I believe my subconscious was negotiating my opinions: “Sitting through the Lincoln stuff was worth it to get to the politics.” It’s odd; as good as Day-Lewis’ performance was, anytime we moved far enough away from the 13th Amendment fight, I wanted to go back. It probably has less to do with the actor and more the way the film placed the character on a pedestal. In some ways, I believe that this film will likely become a historical text in and of itself, but I was already aware that Abraham Lincoln was a man responsible for many great deeds. There were so many shots of the character in profile, or upshot to make him feel bigger, to subtly remind audiences that this was a “great” man. Heck, there were several scenes that ended with seemingly 10-15 second shots of Lincoln slowly walking out of the room. Lincoln took the “show, don’t tell” axiom of filmmaking several steps too far for my tastes.

When you factor that in with a nearly two and a half hour running time, the film can be a lot to swallow (I’m not saying the person sitting next to me fell asleep and snored loudly four times … OK, yeah, I guess I am). It’s a shame that a film that is as great as it is for long stretches of time is burdened by all of this extra “stuff” that’s probably the real reason audiences are going to be coming out in the first place. The good news is because Day-Lewis is so great, I don’t think audiences will really notice the first time around. But on the multiple viewings that a great historical text like Lincoln will become, the dichotomy between the “13th Amendment” movie and that of the President will become all too apparent.

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Photo Credit: DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC

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