Lincoln (2012)

Lincoln

Steven Spielberg, 2012, USA

The biopic is a genre that is, like its literary cousin the biography, decidedly not for everyone.  The reason being that even relatively short lives consist of massive amounts of detail, so the author or filmmaker has to strike a difficult to achieve balance between burying their audience with minutia or glossing over complexities in the name of coherent narrative.  This is hard enough to do in a 400 page book, much less a two and half hour film.  Lincoln succeeds in obtaining this balance not by ambitiously retelling large swaths of our sixteenth president’s life but by focusing in on the the early months of 1865 right before Mr. Lincoln’s tragic death.

Don’t get me wrong – there are great biopics that succeed in taking the long view of one person’s life (Gandhi (1982), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and Raging Bull (1980) to name a few).  Certainly Spielberg, with his talent to tell the over-story (often at the expense of his characters) could have pulled off a massive and action filled epic about Abraham Lincoln.  Perhaps someday that film will be made, but in this story is not massive, action filled, or epic, but rather a successful attempt to connect the audience with who Mr. Lincoln was by re-creating, in precise detail, a short period of his life.

While Spielberg goes beyond his comfort zone by resisting the epic and focusing on the day to day, Daniel Day-Lewis is squarely in his domain.  After all, his last two Oscar-nominated performances (winning one) were playing nineteenth century Americans.  Of course this is about the only thing that these characters have in common.  In any event Mr. Day-Lewis once again shows why he is often considered today’s finest working actor.  The rest of the cast (Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris, etc.) are more than up to the task as well.

Of course Lincoln does not escape Spielberg’s eternally optimistic worldview, despite the tragic ending that we all know is coming.  After all, even his greatest work, the tragedy Schindler’s List (1993) is pure Spielberg when it breaks the fourth wall at the end.  For those who don’t like his work in general, this may be a bit of a turn off.  Certainly the tragic complexities of the Civil War are rarely visited territory in films, and there is a case to be made that Spielberg misses an opportunity.  For me, however, that is another director’s film for another day, and what Lincoln sets out to do – present a detailed portrait of Abraham Lincoln by re-creating a few specific months of his life – is masterfully accomplished.

You may like Lincoln if: You are interested in a refreshing take on the biopic that uses masterful acting and directing to present a vision of Abraham Lincoln that sheds new light on a revered historical figure.

You may not like Lincoln if: You feel that Spielberg can do no right and that every film about war has to be dark, bleak, and gritty.

(c) 2012 D.G. McCabe