Lincoln is a bio-pic, but it really isn’t a bio-pic. We’ve all seen the biography films of a big figure like Johnny Cash, and while it’s cool to see them rise up from nothing to become a star, it can also become quite boring. Spielberg knowing the immense effects of Lincoln’s administration, decides to only take on the emancipation proclamation of Lincoln’s life, and thus distills him to the main essentials. Sure, there is much more to talk about than just the freedom of African-American slaves, but Tony Kushner’s script boils it all down to something that is more concise and focused. Sure, the whole life story of Abraham Lincoln would be more fitting to a film titled Lincoln, but the intimate details make the man.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting is phenomenal of course, but not in the over-bearing or dominating way that you might think. Abraham Lincoln himself isn’t a boisterous or flamboyant man, and that’s exactly how Day-Lewis plays him. He plays Lincoln low-key, but not to a fault, that’s how he was, and perfectly replicates his subtle confidence and looming power. Out of this static quietness, Day-Lewis is able to bank credit for when Lincoln actually does act out, and these scenes are played even more powerfully off the juxtaposition of emotions. Day-Lewis is goddamn perfect in this, but I fear his characterization of a relatively boring and quiet man may fall by the wayside (in Awards season), but then again this is Daniel Day-Lewis we’re talking about.
Steven Spielberg is of course a fantastic director, but within Lincoln he proves it through a more subtle and introspective way. Lincoln is not really a grand movie, sure it stretches to a couple different places, but it is largely stagnant within the political dealings of the time. A lot of this movie is just watching old people talk in a room, quite literally. I hope you weren’t expecting an action-type Civil war battle movie, while there’s like half a scene of it, this is basically all dialogue. Spielberg somehow makes a grand bio-pic, while only focusing on the most certain and important details of Lincoln and his life. From a technical standpoint, Spielberg likes to focus on close-ups to create an intimacy and connection with the characters. This is great within this particular film though, as rather than wade through superfluous info on Lincoln, we focus on a bare bones concept, where Spielberg zero’s in the camera to create effect and double the severity of this motion. Graphic matchs are plentiful as well, where Spielberg doesn’t play with the movement of the camera too much, but more-so guides it into subtle points of focus or slowly massages it into a scene, never over-bearing, but rather a guiding hand through the film’s subjects, like only Spielberg could do. Making this film cover only a specific part of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency was absolutely phenomenal, and allowed them to avoid hovering over broad concepts, and really narrow in on an important one.
Of course, what everyone will always be waiting for in a Lincoln bio-pic will be the infamous “theater shooting” scene (death of Lincoln), and throughout watching the film I thought it would be increasingly cheap and obvious to show the execution so blatant, as this film was progressing in a way that it would actually make no sense in this film narrative to show it. And, brilliantly (spoiler alert) Spielberg never does show the killing, nor should he. The film never feels like it’s building towards the death of Lincoln, and nor should it, as this film is not about the death of Lincoln, but his transgressions beforehand. Of course, you have to cross that bridge (the studio would never let a Lincoln film go without at least dealing with the aftermath of his death), but Spielberg never exploits it, in fact he skips right over it to Lincoln’s’ dead body lying on a bed. On the one hand, Spielberg knows he could never make justice for that scene, but even larger than that, the film didn’t even need that, Spielberg knew what he was creating and subverted all expectations to his benefit.
I guess Spielberg almost made an anti-bio-pic, he picked up Lincoln’s story in his third term and literally only covered the emancipation of black people, even as big of an issue as it was. He skipped over everything else, including Lincoln’s infamous death, and it was all so much better for it. I knew that the death didn’t need to be shown, as the story didn’t call for it, but thought Spielberg might oblige for the pure historical fascination and curiosity of the whole event. But, fantastically Spielberg got to tell the Lincoln story he wanted, illuminating his human aspects, while not sinking to the cheap death thrills that may have been expected of him or a film of such a prominent figure and his “famous” death.
Now, lets talk about how this movie was kind of shit, not really, but I gotta have some cons in here. The absolute worst thing I hate in “period” films/TV/books/anything is when they make subtle or more commonly glaringly blatant winks toward the future with their characters. Every dumb bio-pic does this at least once to get a cheap half-laugh out of the viewer and makes him go “Oh, hey! THAT IS REFERENCING A FUTURE EVENT THAT THEY ARE UNAWARE OF AT THE TIME, BUT WILL EFFECT THEM MAJORLY. IRONY!!!”. You can’t even play it off as foreshadowing, because it’s always just an off-handed remark or cute line to incite the whatever major event or happening this person is famous for. There’s a couple lines where Mary half-jokes that she’s gonna be sent to a mental institution and that’s all we’ll remember her for. Boy, wouldn’t you know it, THAT’S EXACTLY HOW WE REMEMBER HER. Another instance occurs right before Lincoln is leaving to go to the theatre where he (SPOILER ALERT!!!) gets shot. All dramatic-like he puts on his hat and says something like “I don’t want to leave, but I have to” (sue me, I can’t remember the exact quote). Get it, “leave” actually means to die, he doesn’t want to die, but he has to because he’s Lincoln and this is his bio-pic and he has to die, get it, good.
Lastly, I want to separate a whole other paragraph just to tell you how awful Joseph Gordon-Levitt is in this. I’m not actually that mean, but I didn’t know where else to include this, so it gets its own abbreviated paragraph. I’m kinda neutral on Gordon-Levitt, I don’t really hate him, but he is all sorts of smarmy, but I always try as best as I can to separate the actor’s personal traits from whichever character they’re playing (I’m kind of a saint in that way). He’s a solid enough actor, but he seemed to be way in over his head, to be fair, playing a whiny character doesn’t do him any justice, but nothing seemed to work here. He looked like an attention-seeking child who found old-timey clothes and decided to put on a show for his alcoholic mother. Don’t get me wrong, Gordon-Levitt can be a solid actor, and that’s why I’m surprised he was so bad in this, I’ll chalk a small part of it to the challenges of playing a bore of a son, but you gotta make a mountain out of a mole hill, buddy, that’s your job as an actor.
Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis combine to create an accurate and honest portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, while not as colourful and exploitive as one may expect from arguably the most celebrated and discussed president, it develops the truthful and real side of Lincoln that helped to form social and political doings that formulated the man more than we ever realize in today’s society. It argues for smaller moments within the man, and how these shaped his political doings, over grandeur and epicness just for the sake of a biographical film.