Bodies meet in the cold wet dirt. Specks of mud and blood float above the carnage and rain back down upon the weary soldiers of the Civil War. It's red vs. blue, north vs. south, a country torn and a fight born of a broken unity. A nation at war with itself. The swords of men would meet on these battlefields and pierce the very skins of those who in later years would die for each other on foreign battlefields in conflicts that were often just as bloody and occasionally just as hollow.
Lincoln begins this way, but in a glimpse. The extended first person slaughterhouse that became of the beaches of Normandy in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan replaced with a battle that occurs in a blink, like a memory that slides itself in between two unrelated memories and is gone as quickly as it is given recognized. There's a reason for this. Lincoln is not a war film. It is not an action film, or a violent one. We're well aware that the savage war rages out there somewhere, but Spielberg decides this time that the battle is not the story, but an extension of it. And we remain incubated safely within the walls of the courts and the palatial homestead of the nation's great leader. Lincoln is not really even about the man himself. It is not a biopic so much as a courtroom drama in which he plays a pivotal role.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays the legendary president, and in typical Day-Lewis fashion, the actor is lost within the performance. He is an embodiment of a man with whose first hand witness accounts are becoming more distant and faded every year. A man whose voice we've never heard, whose walk we've never seen and whose life away from his presidential duties is almost entire speculation. Daniel plays Lincoln as a man who is entirely human and even relatable, but who always had the answers. A frail looking man, awkward in gait, wanderous in speech. Quiet to a near whisper and thoughtful to the very last syllable.
Daniel Day-Lewis' name has become synonymous with the 'powerhouse performance.' He makes all his characters seem larger than life, even if, historically, they were not. This could be the greatest performance of the year and whether a plethora of awards and recogntions follow it or not, it is a great artistic achievement. Finally giving us an Abraham Lincoln we can see, hear, observe. Lincoln is a real person now, not just a legend or a monument in Washington, DC.
If there's one thing that can be said for Lincoln, it's that it's authentic. This film doesn't feel like a modern production of a past time, it feels like that past time through and through. From the costumes to the mannerisms to the streets to the dialogue, this film feels like the late 1800's and as a result, those of us used to the hyperkinetic filmmaking of 2012 will feel challenged by it's pacing. See Skyfall and Lincoln in the same evening and experience a cinematic culture shock. Like The Colour Purple though, or Amistad, Spielberg knows that sometimes the best way to have an audience buy what he's selling is not through special effects, but authenticity. It makes sense that Lincoln shares a stylistic and narrative kinship with Colour Purple and Amistad, all three are films that are about the tribulation and liberation of the African American population, albeit at different times in history. Lincoln could be called the third film in the African American rights trilogy.
Lincoln is a slow movie, deliberately so. In two and a half hours, Spielberg doesn't rush a single scene. The whole movies centres around the amendment to the constitution which would free the slaves and a great deal of time is spent in the courtroom and a great deal of time is spent sitting round a table talking about it. There are a few scenes spent with Lincoln and his troubled wife, played to jarring perfection by Sally Field, and a few less between Lincoln and his sons, one of whom is played by busy rising star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who keeps giving better and better performances with every film he's in. But most of the action is political and/or legal.
Another thing that somewhat affects the narrative of the picture is that we know the outcome of the big court case. The case is built up in the film as an arc that is meant to generate suspense in whether the amendment will garner enough votes to be passed. Well, we know it will, so the suspense of the outcome is diluted somewhat. But for some the story of how the bill was passed is entertainment enough.
Lincoln is kind of an odd picture in some ways. Not really a biopic, certainly not a war film. It's a courtroom drama, but like all courtroom dramas based on real cases, we know the outcome. If nothing else, it's certainly an example of one of the greatest actors of all time giving a beautiful performance of one of the greatest leaders of all time. And yet it would cheapen the film to say that that's all that it is. It's an authentic representation of an important moment in history which you will already know all about. So whether you feel you need to see that dramatized on screen is ultimately up to you.
It's a good movie that's a little long and a little slow. And a film that continues to find Spielberg in an odd place in his filmography of making films that are, in content and effect, below the bar he has previously set for himself. Which isn't to say bad. A lesser Spielberg is still usually a better somebody else.