“Honest Abe Gets His Due”

Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field
Directed by Steven Spielberg

Continuing to prove that he has no intention of resting on his laurels – and, mind you, those are mighty big laurels, thanks to landmark classics like “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Schindler’s List” – Steven Spielberg follows last year’s one-two punch of “The War Horse” and “The Adventures of Tin-Tin” with the long-awaited “Lincoln,” a rousing historical drama that easily qualifies as the legendary filmmaker’s finest movie since 2005’s “Munich.”

Spielberg’s 27th feature as a director (not including his “Kick the Can” segment from 1983’s “Twilight Zone: The Movie”) covers the last four months in the life of Abraham Lincoln while he pushed for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment – a move that would outlaw slavery and, by extension, end the Civil War. It was a hard-won battle – one that would take a tremendous physical and emotional toll on the 16th President of the United States – but Lincoln stood by his Gettysburg Address, since the future of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” depended on it.

But for a film that covers such a defining moment in U.S. history, “Lincoln” has a notably confined feel to it – one that initially serves as a detriment to the film. Instead of feeling like an epic with vast “Saving Private Ryan”-inspired battle scenes, it takes place mostly indoors and feels more like a play – an exposition-heavy play that threatens to turn the whole affair into a preachy history lesson (which, really, it is). But after a slow-going first half, “Lincoln” gets better as it goes along, culminating with an inspiring conclusion that does justice to both Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”).

As for his performance as Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis has emerged as the one to beat for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. Instead of laying it on way too thick, like he did with 2002’s “Gangs of New York” and 2007’s “There Will Be Blood” – the latter of which won him his second Oscar (his first was for 1989’s “My Left Foot”) – Day-Lewis gives an amazing performance that’s fully-realized, inspirational and powerfully restrained, and the film is all the better for it.

But for a movie that’s called “Lincoln,” it’s surprising how much of an ensemble piece it is. Daniel Day-Lewis is actually absent during a good portion of the movie’s 2 hour and 12 minute running time, leaving plenty of room for scene-stealing turns from Sally Field (as wife Mary Todd), James Spader (as Democratic operative WN Bilbo) and especially Tommy Lee Jones (as Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens). Joseph Gordon Levitt is also effective (as Lincoln’s son Robert Todd), but the subplot regarding his efforts to enlist in the war feels a bit forced and contrived.

The costume design is fantastic, but there are times when “Lincoln” turns into a game of “name the actor under the makeup.” The effect can be distracting at times, though it’s a far cry from the unpleasant experience of seeing a younger Lincoln fend off creatures of the night in the silly “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” Regardless, the true impact of “Lincoln” hits close to home during this election year, since Honest Abe took a stand for something so admirable, important and historical that you wish the likes of him were still around to this day.

-Scott Mantz