Such an appropriate time is this for a film about Abraham Lincoln. It’s not just because of the recent American elections, or even the coincidental events of states wanting to secede from the U.S. (Spielberg couldn’t have seen that coming from a mile away). Instead we look at a troubled president who is not troubled because of his mental state, but troubled because people are quick to put pressure on him. Obama is no Lincoln by any means, but many people are hating Obama’s decisions even before he even attempts to begin his new ideas. Again, Obama is not Lincoln, but perhaps we should give whoever is in office a bit of leeway, not just Obama. Presidents do make mistakes, but there are some drastic, life changing and historical decisions some presidents have to face, and Lincoln instills faith in its audience that, perhaps, faith should be had with whomever the current president is and not just quick hatred.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m absolutely delusional. Maybe I feel that this is so possible because Lincoln felt possible. Of course it is based on true events, but what I mean is that this president didn’t feel like some kind of untouchable. His family didn’t seem distant. His methods didn’t seem instantly holy and the world wasn’t a stage. The film feels so real, thanks to one of the best casts of the year, the stunning visuals, and the appropriate form of story telling. The film goes for realism and not just drama. When the film feels that it is necessary to be silly and have some comic relief, it goes for it without hesitating and having to ask us for permission. When the film feels that Lincoln shouldn’t be the sole focus and that other people of whom are of importance should be focused on, it goes for it, knowing Day-Lewis will have left a lasting impression already and we don’t need a thousand reminders of both his performance and Lincoln’s heroism.
What shocked me the most about this clearly Spielbergian film is that it didn’t feel very Spielbergian. Yes, you had your bad guys and your good guys, clear as crystal. Yes you had triumphing music and some gorgeous pans and shots. However, all of this was kept down. You had main characters that were just as offensive as bad guys (Thaddeus Stevens, anyone? I mean, what a jerk. A funny jerk, and a right jerk, but a jerk nonetheless), and you had bad people who were honest and clearly unsure of themselves (Save for Ohio because what a bunch of jerks. In the movie. Not now. Don’t hurt me). The music was kept minimal and used as punches and not just to score the entire movie. The movie was essentially what it was meant to be, a political thriller, and it never felt cheesy or predictable. It’s bizarre because we all know what happened and we know how history played out, but it doesn’t seem that way. You still get attached and fear the worst.
What I find interesting about the movie is that you do feel unsure about it. It’s actually magically insane how well this movie worked out, and it’s not as if Spielberg could have planned it to work this way (unless he did, because you never know, but it seems so difficult). You feel uneasy about how the movie is working. It cuts right into the action. No typical Spielberg grande opening with music. You meet Lincoln right away in the second scene. No big build up; he’s just there. And the whole movie works like this, where everything is just so open and so welcoming. That’s how Lincoln was as a person. As the movie went on, and this is what I find interesting, I felt myself remarking on how gorgeous the previous scene was now as a piece of the whole picture. It wasn’t because I missed a better scene than the one currently, but instead I felt like history had passed and I was able to appreciate how it progressed the story, and I was able to appreciate how the risky candidness of this movie just worked. Oddly enough, the most obvious points in the story, of which I won’t mention here (but you’ll see what I mean when you watch the film) are made fresh because the most obvious moments are shot differently and are shot less openly because we’ve heard these stories so many times. Instead, Spielberg uses these moments to reflect on their respective impacts, and in return we feel exactly like the people on screen. We feel the triumph. We feel the shock. We feel the movement. We feel everything, and you wouldn’t think you would with a story you’ve heard more than you’ve heard milkshake jokes about Daniel Plainview.
The acting as a whole was absolutely brilliant: Sally Field as the nerve stricken yet brave wife, Tommy Lee Jones as the vulgar yet courageous leader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the distant son who faces issues of his own identity in a country that faces problems of self, Jackie Earle Haley as the conniving and split tongued vice president of the confederation, and John Hawkes and James Spader as a pair of comedic relief and moral reasoning, amongst many other names. I’ve got to bring up the main man, though, and I feel it is important not because it is a question of whether or not Daniel Day-Lewis could pull it off. I think by now everyone has faith in Day-Lewis as an actor (and if not, seriously watch the vast majority of his movies and come back to me). I think we questioned how he would approach this film, and we know Day-Lewis for his very grande performances. Here, he is humble. He is relaxed. He is the anchor of the film. When everyone else goes off the rails, Day-Lewis’s Lincoln will tell a funny story with such earnest wisdom and absolute heart. It’s absolutely unreal to see Day-Lewis command the screen as the calmest person on it, and yet it happens so damn easily. The moments where even Lincoln has to let off some steam will strike you so heavily because of how well Day-Lewis can pull off someone reaching their boiling point, and yet he never goes insane. He just gets more vocal and passionate about his points. There will be moments where you fill be so focused on how other people are doing with their performances because you’ll forget that someone is actually acting as Abraham Lincoln. It is one of the most naturalistic performances I have seen in years, and, just, damn it Day-Lewis, you’ve done it again.
Overall the film is not just a celebration, which I feared seeing that Spielberg was behind the camera; The film is a charming, funny, emotional, and captivating political thriller. It’s interesting, it’s personal, and it’s ambitious all at the same time. It never tries to be too ambitious, and it never gets lazy. It just feels naturally right. In all honesty, this film is Spielberg’s best film in over a decade. You get more than just the story of one of the finest presidents and the story about the civil war and the abolishment of slavery. You get a father’s outlook on his children, a wife’s concern for her husband, family and country, a great look at Thaddeus Stevens’s contribution to this point in history, and you get what Spielberg always wants with his films: Captivation via cinematic magic. His more recent films have tried to instill this feeling as much as possible and it has felt artificial. Here, it feels authentic and you feel more accomplished and moved than you do guilty and hateful. Don’t just watch the movie because of its relevance with the recent events in American politics, and don’t just watch the film for its acting. Don’t just watch the film for its beautiful images and music, and don’t just watch it just because of Spielberg’s name. Watch it to discover what this film means for yourself, and see how the president’s story being brought back to life will affect you personally because it very well may do just that.