How do you make a two-and-a-half-hour, dialogue-driven period piece about the passing of the 13th Amendment interesting and entertaining? Load it up with some of the best currently-working actors, base it on the highest-regarded book about the Amendment and let Steven Spielberg direct it. That’s how.
The title of Spielberg’s latest film, ‘Lincoln’, is a bit deceiving. Is Abraham Lincoln the central character? Arguably, yes. But ‘Lincoln’ plays out more like an ensemble film that isn’t centered on the President himself. Rather, it’s about the seemingly impossible act of passing the 13th Constitutional Amendment, which could be deemed as his legacy. We mostly see the Amendment’s passing through his eyes, but this is hardly a story about Honest Abe.
The passing of the 13th Amendment, which put an end to slavery in the United States, makes for an interesting tale. Think back to how brilliantly ‘The Ides of March‘ fictionally portrayed the campaign trail. Take the same vigor and strength of that film, apply it to the process of passing bills through the Senate, use a historically accurate account (at least that’s what I’m told about the book ‘Team of Rivals’), and that’s what you get from ‘Lincoln’.
Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones have received plenty of acclaim for their roles as Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, respectively, but each member of this huge cast deserves equal praise. Sally Field is brilliant as the mentally anguished First Lady. David Strathairn plays Secretary of State William Seward with a genuinely honest conviction. And Lee Pace, who hasn’t wowed me since ‘Pushing Daisies’, plays the best possible “villain” – the boisterous head Democrat who opposes the Amendment. Other great players in this ensemble include Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lukas Haas and Walton Goggins.
As he typically does, Spielberg has directed a beautiful and well-balanced film. Aside from the opening wartime sequence, the rest of the movie is all talking – yet it never lost my attention. ‘Lincoln’ functions in the same way that makes most courtroom dramas riveting and interesting. It even has a balance of light-heartedness and occasional comedy to help you glide through the dissection of heavy moral content.
I have only one complaint: The movie should end two minutes earlier. The current ending suddenly juts away from the main focal point (the Amendement) just to give us unnecessary cinematic closure to the Lincoln character. Two minutes prior to this, the film has a perfect moment where it should end. In fact, I believed that the movie was coming to a close there, but then it went on a few minutes longer to give us some unfitting melodrama.
Had it not been for the barely-too-long ending, ‘Lincoln’ would have been worthy of a perfect five-star rating.