Movie Review: “Lincoln” – Performance Art Defined

Written by Jesse Gelinas November 19, 2012

Daniel Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln in "Lincoln"

“The fate of human dignity in our hands…”

Daniel Day-Lewis is some kind of wizard. Let’s get that out of the way immediately. Historical dramas about great men usually have a common trend of relying on a powerhouse performance from a masterful actor, and “Lincoln” is no different. It does, however, give us so much more. We get a rather distorted view into the life of an extremely complicated man and the near-legendary people around him, but it is presented in such a well-crafted, engaging film that the broad details almost cease to matter when seen beside the emotional journey we set are upon.

“Lincoln” gives the viewers an inside look at the weeks leading up to the House vote on Abraham Lincoln’s Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery in the United States. We’re shown all the major players working the vote in the House and behind closed doors. Representatives, lobbyists, lawyers, soldiers, family members, all come together to show the audience the bitter side of politics, war, and nation building.

“Abraham Lincoln has asked us to work with him to accomplish the death of slavery.”

Low point first. The movie paints an almost messiah-like picture of President Lincoln. The man’s faults are few, and almost nonexistent. He is idealistic, brilliant, kind to everyone, and can do no wrong. The truth is he was human like the rest of us, and had his shortcomings. Yes, Spielberg chose to just brush off the controversy surrounding Lincoln’s alleged infidelity, as well as his rampant racism. But the film does not need these points to function. This isn’t about Lincoln’s mistakes. This is about his legacy.

Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens in "Lincoln"

The acting is phenomenal. DDL is (as noted above) a magical being from a dimension consisting solely of British method actors who collect Oscars for a living. You know all this already. The real pleasant surprise of the film is the fantastic supporting cast. Tommy Lee Jones is a shoe-in for a Supporting nod, and Sally Field is spectacular in ways she hasn’t been able to show off in years. James Spader, Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, and Jackie Earle Haley all shine when they’re on screen and steal every one of their scenes. Watching Jones spout off old-timey insults at his fellow Representatives was a highlight of the film for me.

“Are we fitted to the times we’re born into?”

It’s Spielberg so the production is great. The movie looks great, the costumes, sets, and even the brief battle scene are all painstakingly detailed and beautiful to look at. The writing is incredibly entertaining at times, but also a bit uneven. There are times when the movie seems to drag and even its 2-hour running time starts to feel long, but it more than makes up for it with the scenes in the House of Representatives, and with any moment between Lincoln and his wife, Mary. The humour is prevalent throughout and helps offset the dryness of the subject matter. Ultimately, this is a political film about what goes on behind the ‘world stage’, and it does it wonderfully. My only complaint about the structure would be that it goes a bit too far. I can’t consider it a spoiler to say this movie does contain Lincoln’s death, and it is an entirely unnecessary choice that would have been better omitted from the final cut.

Lincoln surveying the battlefield

“Lincoln” is terrific overall. It has its flaws, and it falls short of being anything resembling the best film of the year. You may label it as pure Oscar-bait, and maybe that’s true, but there’s a reason movies like this tend to actually get those Oscars. There’s more than a few award-worthy performances and everything comes together around DDL’s masterful, effortless performance. Don’t see the movie for an accurate retelling of this historical moment, but for a fresh, interesting look into the people who built that moment.

My Rating: 8/10

The film poster for "Lincoln"

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About Jesse Gelinas

After years attempting to escape the Matrix, Jesse has accepted his fate as a writer and Senior Editor. Now that's he finished with his film degree, it gives him something to do while waiting for the machines to get careless.

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