A historic epic from Steven Spielberg carries a lot of baggage, but he surprises us with a remarkably contained approach to an iconic figure. What's most unexpected is that this is a political drama, not a biopic. It's a long, talky movie about back-room deal-making on a very big issue: ending slavery in America. It also has one of the most intelligent, artful scripts of the past year, plus a remarkably wry central performance.
Daniel Day-Lewis constantly grounds Abraham Lincoln in his earthy humanity, good humour and tenacious desire to do the right thing, no matter what it takes. The film essentially covers just one month in which Lincoln works to outlaw slavery before ending four years of civil war. Secretary of State Seward (Strathairn) reluctantly supports this plan, enlisting three shady negotiators (Spader, Nelson and Hawkes) to convince wavering members of Congress to vote in favour of a constitutional amendment. Meanwhile at home, Lincoln is under pressure from his wife Mary (Field) to keep their oldest son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) off the battlefield.
All of this political wrangling makes the film feel like a 19th century version of The West Wing, and Kushner's script crackles with wit, nuance and passion, clearly echoing today's political debates about issues like gun control and human rights. We find ourselves wishing that our own politicians were this creative about getting the votes they need on important issues. This meaty approach gives the cast terrific dialog to bite into, although Spielberg never lets anyone run riot with scenery-chomping antics. The closest is probably Jones, as the fiery anti-slavery supporter Thaddeus Stevens. He's terrific in this role. And Field shines too in as the spiky Mary. Even if she's about a decade too old for the character, she brings intelligence and emotion to every scene.
But this is Day-Lewis' film, and he takes an unusually restrained approach that catches us off guard. In fact, the whole film has a subtlety to it that makes it both involving and provocative, augmented by expert work from the entire crew. It might be overlong and office-bound, taking rather a long time to work up much energy and hedging away from the more iconic moments, but Spielberg beautifully tells the story without sentimentality, never manipulating emotions or over-egging the message. Which makes it all the more potent.
Run time: 150 mins
In Theaters: Friday 16th November 2012
Box Office USA: $182.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $275.3M
Distributed by: Dreamworks Pictures
Production compaines: DreamWorks, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Reliance Entertainment, Participant Media, Dune Entertainment, Amblin Entertainment, The Kennedy/Marshall Company
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Fresh: 223 Rotten: 26
IMDB: 7.4 / 10
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as William Seward, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, James Spader as WN Bilbo, Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, Lee Pace as Fernando Wood, Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens, Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, Bruce McGill as Edwin Stanton, Walton Goggins as Wells A. Hutchins, Tim Blake Nelson as Richard Schell, Boris McGiver as Alexander Coffroth, Adam Driver as Samuel Beckwith, John Hawkes as Robert Latham, Joseph Cross as John Hay, Peter McRobbie as George Pendleton, Gulliver McGrath as Tad Lincoln, Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley, Jeremy Strong as John Nicolay, Michael Stuhlbarg as George Yeaman, David Costabile as James Ashley, Stephen Spinella as Asa Vintner Litton, Walton Goggins as Clay Hawkins, David Warshofsky as William Hutton, Colman Domingo as Private Harold Green, Lukas Haas as First White Soldier, Dane DeHaan as Second White Soldier, Bill Camp as Mr.Jolly, Elizabeth Marvel as Mrs. Jolly, Julie White as Elizabeth Blair Lee, Byron Jennings as Montgomery Blair, Richard Topol as James Speed, Walter Smith as William Fessenden, Dakin Matthews as John Usher, Wayne Duvall as Senator Bluff Wade, Bill Raymond as Schuyler Colfax, Drew Sease as David Homer Bates, John Hutton as Senator Charles Sumner, Chase Edmunds as Willie Lincoln, Gregory Itzin as Judge John A. Campbell, John Lescault as Gustavus Fox, Mike Shiflett as Senator R.M.T. Hunter, Gannon McHale as Aaron Haddam, Ken Lambert as August Benjamin, Thomas K. Belgrey as Arthur Bentleigh, Mary Dunleavy as Marguerite, Armistead Wellford as Nehemiah Cleary, Ted Johnson as John Ellis, Don Henderson Baker as Walter Appleton, Raynor Scheine as Josiah S. 'Beanpole' Burton, Todd Fletcher as Walter H. Washburn, Charles Kinney as Myer Strauss, Joseph Carlson as Joseph Marstern, Michael Goodwin as Chilton A. Elliot, Edward McDonald as Daniel G. Stuart, Jim Batchelder as Howard Guillefoyle, Gregory Hosaflook as John F. McKenzie, Joe Kerkes as Andrew E. Finck, William Kaffenberger as John A. Casson, Larry Van Hoose as Avon Hanready, C. Brandon Marshall as Rufus Warren, Christopher Boyer as General Robert E. Lee, S. Epatha Merkerson as Lydia Smith, Robert Shepherd as Dr. Joseph K. Barnes, Grainger Hines as Gideon Welles, Skye Dennis as Union Soldier
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