In more than 40 years of professional filmmaking, Steven Spielberg has a spotty record when it comes to critical success.
Simply put, you could end up with a renowned “Schindler’s List,” or an underperforming “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”
It’s for this reason that when it was announced that Spielberg was directing a film based on Abraham Lincoln, I had a bit of a panic.
As it turns out, I had no reason to worry; “Lincoln” is easily one of the best films of this year.
Rather than take on the monumental task of showing Lincoln’s whole life, or even his whole presidency, “Lincoln” focuses instead on his last four months.
Indeed, the story is rather more about the Thirteenth Amendment than it is about Lincoln alone.
The film shows with great detail how Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his Secretary of State, William H. Seward (David Strathairn), resort to intrigue to bring together an unlikely coalition of radical republicans led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), conservative republicans led by Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) and desperate democrats.
Anyone with a modicum of American history knowledge knows how this story ends, yet the film still manages to create a masterful sense of urgency as Lincoln struggles to obtain votes. This is especially true during the House of Representatives’ roll call vote that decides the fate of the amendment — everyone in the theater knows the Thirteenth Amendment passes, but still, the whole audience was on the edge of their seats, waiting with bated breath to see what would happen.
A large part of the film’s success has to be attributed to screenwriter Tony Kushner. Known best for his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Angels in America,” Kushner provides a great script for the actors to work with.
Unsurprisingly, Daniel Day-Lewis gives the greatest performance of the film as Lincoln himself. Day-Lewis is known for his superb acting and commitment to a role, as seen in his classic performances in films such as “Gangs of New York” or the exquisite “There Will Be Blood.”
Bringing such a beloved and mythologized figure as Abraham Lincoln to life would be a lifetime’s challenge for even a great actor, but Day-Lewis does it so easily that you forget you’re watching an actor on a screen and not Lincoln himself.
Where Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is frequently understated and pensive, many characters around him explode onto the screen, particularly Tommy Lee Jones as the fiery radical Thaddeus Stevens.
And this brings up an aspect of the film that I think no one expected — “Lincoln,” a serious drama about slavery and war, is frequently hilarious.
Jones provides some of the best laughs with his truly excellent insults hurled at adversaries in the House of Representatives.
But most entertaining of all is Lincoln’s humor. As with all great men in history, Lincoln’s personality has been white-washed by time and biographers; but the truth is that, in his day, Lincoln was known for telling dirty jokes.
Most of that is left untouched, but audiences still get to enjoy some unexpected off-color stories and wry humor.
Ultimately, “Lincoln” is one of those rare movies that will satisfy history buffs looking for at least some historical accuracy, cinema lovers watching for great performances and skilled filmmaking, and the casual movie-goer who simply wants an entertaining story.
Coming on Friday, December 7:
“Playing for Keeps” tells the story of a has-been soccer star who returns home and tries to redeem himself by coaching his young son’s soccer team. Complications arise when he finds himself surrounded by several attractive soccer-moms.
Starring: Gerard Butler, Jessica Biel, Uma Thurman, Catherine Zeta-Jones