Lincoln practically shouts “prestige production” before you’ve
even had a chance to buy your popcorn. A costume drama about one of this
nation’s most revered historical figures, this is the kind of film
irresistible to awards groups.
As if the subject alone isn’t worthy of adulation, it comes with a towering pedigree: Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan), Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood) and a script by Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner.
To its credit, Lincoln has lengthy stretches in which it’s as absorbing as it wants to be. The movie chronicles the last few months of the president’s life, when Abraham Lincoln (Day-Lewis) fought to pass the 13th Amendment, outlawing slavery, before the Civil War drew to a close.
His quest is politically tricky and requires navigating through competing factions of congressional Republicans — especially the radical abolitionists led by Sen. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, Hope Springs) and making deals with Democratic lawmakers willing to sell their vote for a plum job. Lincoln is at its best during such times, when it forgoes its loftier ambitions in favor of being a 19th-century political procedural.
Unfortunately, the production’s self-consciousness can be a drag elsewhere.
The enormous cast — which also includes Sally Field (The Amazing Spider-Man) as Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper) as their eldest son and David Strathairn (The Bourne Legacy) as Secretary of State William Seward — is astonishingly good, and Day-Lewis successfully disappears into, and humanizes, the iconic title role.
But terrific acting and a literate screenplay can’t stifle all of Spielberg’s more sentimental instincts, and Lincoln loses its footing well before the poor guy goes to Ford’s Theatre.