I knew that I would have to see Lincoln because it stars Daniel Day-Lewis, but I was wary of the subject matter. Most historical epics leave me cold, and I find that I have little interest in politics of any kind. The prospect of watching two-and-a-half hours of (mostly) men dressed in 1860s garb, and depictions of the Civil War, did not exactly appeal. I had similar misgivings about The Iron Lady (a far inferior film), but wanted to watch the best actress of her generation, Meryl Streep.
Fortunately for me, with the exception of the opening battle scene, Spielberg chose to do something rather different.
I remember a conversation with Quentin Tarantino, in which he was asked the question whether he would ever direct the biography of someone like Elvis Presley. Tarantino replied that he couldn't imagine covering Presley's whole life, but it might be interesting to write a story depicting the day he signed with Sun Records. Spielberg has chosen a similar strategy for Lincoln. Instead of being shown Lincoln's entire life, Spielberg focuses on the vote to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, to abolish slavery.
This sharp focus worked well in another political drama, Frost/Nixon, in which David Frost tries to extract an apology from Nixon for the crimes he committed while in power.
Lincoln believes in the Thirteenth Amendment, and that the Civil War might be ended if he can get the bill passed. The film shows the methods Lincoln and his subordinates use to secure the required number of votes. He calculates that, in addition to the Republican votes, he will need 20 from other sources. We see what motivates some of the men who might be persuaded to vote in favor of the bill.
On a deeper level, the film is inevitably a character study. We see how Lincoln listens to men from every walk of life and makes them feel valued. He earns their respect, loyalty, and even their love. On a more personal level, he has problems within his own family. Lincoln has to face his wife, Mary (Sally Field), as she questions some of his actions. One of the biggest dilemmas is whether Lincoln should allow his son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to fight in the Civil War.
Other key characters include Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who has motivations of his own regarding the bill, and William Seward (David Strathairn), Lincoln's Secretary of State.
This is an all-star cast, and the acting is superb across the board. Day-Lewis is arguably the finest male actor of the current century, and this performance only adds to his legend. As always, he inhabits the character, never sounding just like himself. Compare this latest performance to his Oscar-winning role in There Will Be Blood, and you'll see what I mean. Lincoln speaks softly for the most part, but he captivates his audience. He tells a number of amusing anecdotes and the audience in my theater loved most of them.
Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones could also receive nominations in the supporting categories. If you remove those three actors, the cast would still be stronger than that seen in most movies.
While Lincoln isn't the ideal type of film for me, I respect what it achieves. The technical work matches the excellent acting. If I had a greater interest in history, or politics, I would probably have liked Lincoln even more. I could imagine American audiences being fascinated by the subject. This will be one of the leading contenders for Oscar nominations.
Possible glitch in the matrix: D-Day from Animal House (McGill) appears alongside D. Day-Lewis.