In 1865, American President Abraham Lincoln (Day-Lewis) strives to pass an amendment which will abolish slavery in the country…
Broadly speaking, Steven Spielberg’s films can be separated into two categories, divided between populist blockbusters and Oscar-friendly melodramas. Though it’s not nearly as sentimental as Spielberg’s reputation would have us expect, Lincoln falls into the latter grouping, detailing 16th U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s quest to abolish slavery. Intelligent, mature and realised with immaculate period detail, it’s sure to collect some silverware. But while undoubtedly high-minded and bursting with award-courting pedigree (Daniel Day-Lewis was basically nominated for Best Actor the minute he was cast), Spielberg’s legislative biopic plays like a dry history lesson.
The first hour, in particular, is stilted and stuffed with confusing 1860s political speak, making it easy for your attention to wander. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner make the right decision to focus on a specific period in Lincoln’s life as opposed to a Greatest Hits, but the outcome feels too one-note. While Abe’s attempt to pass the 13th Amendment (and therefore outlaw slavery) is riveting in theory, Lincoln sparks to life most during its brief, non-political scenes. See, for example, The President arguing with his unstable wife Mary (Sally Field) or disagreeing with his disillusioned Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), both times about the latter’s desire to go to war.
Still, in what will come as a surprise to absolutely no one, Daniel Day-Lewis is magnificent. Disappearing into the role he once turned down (Liam Neeson was lined up at one point), Day-Lewis simply is Abraham Lincoln, even if the performance isn’t quite as towering or memorable as his Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood. Although, “I am the President of The United States of America, clothed in immense power!” could be this year’s “I. Drink. Your. Milkshake!” Elsewhere, Tommy Lee Jones is the closest we get to fun as a craggy abolitionist and the supporting cast is impressive, while Spielberg’s regular DoP Janusz Kaminski deserves a mention for all the musty, candle-lit lighting.
While Lincoln is high-minded and classy, it plays like a dry history lesson, despite a typically immaculate turn from Daniel Day-Lewis. In short, we have the definitive performance of Abraham Lincoln, but not the definitive movie.