Movies are the most powerful method of storytelling today. Great tales of action, comedy and human drama are told on a giant screen for two to three hours, visually and audibly stimulating the senses and providing an escape from our everyday lives. Biopics are especially effective in the telling of such stories, passing down tales of real life people and their great accomplishments or fascinating lives. For those who weren’t keen on paying attention in school, biopics can provide a quick, cinematic education of key historical figures. So when I heard that Steven Spielberg would be directing a film about our country’s 16th President, I anticipated an epic dramatization of Abraham Lincoln. What I got, however, was a dreary history lesson.
Instead of telling the story of Lincoln’s life, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner focus on his push to pass the 13th Amendment, which would outlaw slavery. The film opens with Lincoln already in his second term, in the middle of the Civil War. From there, the entire two-hour plus running time is dedicated to convincing enough Democrats to side with him to pass the Amendment before the war ends and Southern states are given the opportunity to vote and reject it. There is little insight into his personal life outside some scattered scenes with his son and wife Mary, and the film becomes more of a political drama than a biographical study.
Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic as Lincoln, but his performance isn’t flawless. One key scene where he displays his frustration over the struggle to acquire enough votes will no doubt be played over and over again during the upcoming award season. But as good as he is in it, I felt it to be just a bit hammy and unnatural. It brought to mind the scene from “Downfall,” featuring an irate Hitler, that has been parodied numerous times on YouTube. There was just too much “acting” in that scene. The film also attempts to portray Lincoln’s humble background by having him tell amusing stories in an “aw, shucks” delivery that’s supposed to make him seem relatable to the common man, but this tool is used once too often. Still, Day-Lewis is a lock to be making the rounds at the awards circuit.
A fantastic cast of character actors supports his performance. Sally Field, John Hawkes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Jared Harris and Jackie Earle Haley all excel in their roles. But even among those great actors, Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader give standout performances. Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, who has great motivation to see the 13th Amendment get passed, and Spader provides comic relief as Bilbo, a man hired to help garner those needed votes.
The choice to focus the film on just a few months of Lincoln’s life feels like an opportunity missed. I’m sure that there was much more to the man than his drive to free the slaves. Spielberg does his best to build the drama leading up to the ultimate vote, but much of its intensity is prematurely stripped away by the fact the audience already knows the outcome.
Despite the great acting and the Spielberg name, “Lincoln” feels more like a tedious history lesson rather than a cinematic experience.
“Lincoln,” 149 minutes, is Rated PG-13 and opens in theaters tomorrow.