The final months of Abraham Lincoln’s life are chronicled, including his efforts to pass the 13th Amendent and end slavery, as well as end the Civil War. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals.” Stars Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, and Tommy Lee Jones.
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg’s evolution as a director continues with the outstanding bio pic Lincoln, a film that will likely be remembered as a talky but riveting political drama with an iconic performance by Daniel Day Lewis. Rather than providing a rousing theatrical drama or a historical tale intertwined with the sorrow of war, Spielberg takes a very smart approach to bring Lincoln to life. Using the book “Team of Rivals” as a basis, we see a very human Lincoln through a series of personal and political interactions.
The film has a very narrow focus; specifically, the months before his assassination when he pushed for passage of the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery. The film does not mention John Wilkes Booth at all. In fact, the assassination is merely a footnote. Instead, we see Lincoln in a series of interactions. He speaks with soldiers and freed slaves and relates to them how the war is weighing on him; we see him pushing his agenda to his cabinet, providing a look at his determination and resolve. At times, the acting appears a bit too staged; many of the minor characters act as if they realize the historical importance of what they are saying and doing. It doesn’t ring true.
Thankfully, the film is anchored by the incredible performance of Daniel Day Lewis, who crafts a persona that manages to deliver the wit and wisdom of Lincoln as a real human being, not an iconic figure idolized in monuments. We have gotten used to today’s teleprompter politicians, and forget that men like Lincoln were men of such intellect and conviction that they can say the things they did without the help of a speechwriter. Indeed, Lincoln’s political genius in such a time of turmoil is the real discovery here, and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s strong focus on Lincoln’s personal interactions shines.
If there is a failing in Lincoln, it is the understated handling of his assassination and the closing of the film. In fact, if you aren’t paying attention, you will not realize Lincoln is even heading to Ford’s Theater. The assassination is not shown, and the film ends somewhat abruptly afterward. Many are not even aware that President Lincoln was not the only target of Booth and his co-conspirators that evening, and not even mentioning that in the film is jarring. The National Geographic TV film Killing Lincoln, based on Bill O’Reilly’s book, is a much more detailed account of what happened.
As a bit of a Lincoln buff, I was dismayed by script’s oversight of Lincoln’s spiritual conviction. During the Civil War, Lincoln was known to spend long periods of time on his knees in prayer, and his belief that he was following the will of God in freeing the slaves and preserving the Union was a key part of his personality. The secularization of Lincoln here is a gross misstep, one that must be blamed on Kushner’s script.
Overall, the film doesn’t quite have the emotional gravitas one would expect, and some may count that as a minus. Civil War battles are only briefly shown. However, I consider it a strength and the one thing that will set it apart in time. Rather than going for a theatrical impact with unrealistic overacting, we get a living, breathing, approachable Lincoln. It is masterfully done, and sets a new standard for historical epics that hopefully, Hollywood will continue to aspire to.
VIDEO AND AUDIO
An excellent video transfer gives Lincoln a masterful high definition video image with excellent detail. Janusz Kaminski’s Oscar-nominated cinematography makes each shot look like a snapshot from a history book, and high definition presents it in all its glory. It does appear as if some grain was purposely added to the look of the film to give it more of a “dated” look. It may affect the overall image compared to other modern films, but as a style choice, it works well.
Audio is a top-shelf 7.1 DTS HDMA mix, and it is effective here, especially with so much talking, I usually have to crank my speakers to ensure I catch everything, but voices get the proper dominance and clarity here.
The Blu-ray set includes a number of extras, enough to require a second disc. On the movie disc, “The Journey to Lincoln” featurette includes interviews with Spielberg, producer Kathleen Kennedy, and the actors as they discuss the journey from book to silver screen. A featurette titled “A Historic Tapestry: Richmond, Virginia” is a behind-the-scenes look at how the crew turned the historic buildings of Richmond into Civil War-era Washington. A “credits” feature (listing the producers of the Blu-ray) is usually something viewers skip, but here, footage of Spielberg thanking extras on the set is shown as credits roll. It’s a nice little addition, and fun to see.
Disc two includes the rest of the special features, led off with the “In the Company of Character” featurette, in which Spielberg and producer Kathleen Kennedy discuss how they decided on the cast. The actors each describe how they inhabited their roles, and it makes for an interesting watch. Sally Field provides an interesting anecdote in which she points out how she is exactly Mary Todd Lincoln’s height, but had to gain twenty pounds for the role. Gloria Reuben also discusses her approach to playing Elizabeth Keckley, a figure often forgotten by history.
The “Crafting the Past” featurette shows the Oscar-winning production design and the attention to detail, all the way to the use of period wallpaper. The “Living with Lincoln” featurette is a fascinating look at how the actors approached becoming their real-life counterparts. Especially interesting is hearing Daniel Day Lewis and Spielberg discuss crafting the Lincoln persona, and the fact that the President was known to have not a deep, commanding voice, but a higher, tenor-like voice. Lewis even made a point to voice Lincoln in such a way, which humanizes Lincoln more than any of the words he said.
The “Footsteps of Lincoln” featurette explores more of the technical aspects of the film, including the editing, sound design, and the music. John Williams fans will enjoy this in particular.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BUY IT OR REDBOX IT?
Ratings (1-10 scale)
Overall grade: 9
Lincoln is a great film, and Daniel Day Lewis provides a performance worthy of the Oscar he won. It does end with a whimper instead of a bang, but it is one of the finest historical films ever made. It is outstanding. The Blu-ray release gives it just the treatment it deserves. Pick it up and enjoy.
Release Date: March 26, 2013
Running time: 150 minutes
Aspect ratio: 2.40:1 Audio:English 7.1 DTS-HDMA, English DVS 2.0 Dolby Digital, French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital
Subtitles: English SDH, French and Spanish
Special features: “The Journey to Lincoln” featurette, “A Historic Tapestry: Richmond, Virginia” featurette, “In the Company of Character” featurette, “Crafting the Past” featurette, “Living with Lincoln” featurette, “In Lincoln’s Footsteps” featurette, “Credits” featurette, Digital Copy.