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I imagine that most people would expect a film called Lincoln to be a biopic of the infamous president. However, Steven Spielberg has pulled off something highly unexpected and far more compelling. By focusing on the final months of Lincoln’s life, we are given great insight into this obviously complex individual through the prism of his final and greatest political act. This of course being the abolishment of slavery through the passing of the 13th Amendment.
This film is a meticulous recreation of the events leading to that momentous vote, culminating in the vote itself. It is a testament to the work of Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner that they are able to wring such great intensity out of a sequence wherein the audience knows the outcome. By the time we get to this point, we have witnessed Lincoln’s incredible political maneuvering, manipulating the people in conjunction with a potential end to the Civil War as if playing a personal game of chess. It is this buildup that makes the vote itself so powerful, with every “aye” and “nay” the culmination of everything that has come before.
Of course, none of this would be as effective without somebody phenomenal playing Lincoln. It has become a cliche to say, but Daniel Day Lewis does not play Lincoln in this film; he becomes him. This goes beyond mere performance or mimicry. By embodying the very essence of the man, it feels as if Spielberg was able to get Linoln himself to play the part. It is rare to see an actor disappear so completely into a role, but there is no trace of Day Lewis in this performance. With a higher voice than I have ever seen portrayed, and a gleeful playfulness to the character, there is a humanity to this representation of Lincoln that is instantly compelling.
Part of the charm of the film comes from Lincoln’s giddiness at his own rambling stories. Lincoln knew that this was a pivotal moment for the ages, but he was never above telling a good story, whether it applied to the situation or not. This juxtaposition between the intensity of the political landscape along with the joy Lincoln experienced with his own intellectualism creates a fascinating portrayal of a man that I will never be able to forget.
While Daniel Day Lewis is of course the standout, Spielberg has populated the film with an ensemble of incredible character actors. Some stand out more than others, such as Tommy Lee Jones brilliantly gruff portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens or Sally Field as Lincoln’s long suffering wife Mary Todd Lincoln, but none of the actors phone in their performances. It is obvious that this film meant a great deal to everybody involved and it’s thrilling to watch such an eclectic group performing at the top of their game.
The newly released 4-Disc Blu-Ray is a terrific set, containing the Blu-Ray, a bonus disc of additional features, a DVD, and a Digital Copy of the film. As expected, the picture and sound are flawless, with Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography a particular standout. For lack of a better word, this is a very “talky” film, but Kaminski manages to capture his typically amazing imagery even while filming people just sitting in a room. It’s not a showy film, but it’s a beautiful one.
The bonus features themselves treat the subject matter very seriously, as they should. There are 6 main features, between which everything you could want to know about the film will be explored. Spielberg, Kushner, producer Kathleen Kennedy, etc. all speak very candidly about the process and their perspectives regarding the film’s production and significance. There are detailed looks at the development of the character, the details of the world, the editing, production design, John Williams score, and on and on.
Every year, it feels like there are certain films that are made with the specific purpose of receiving an Oscar. I was afraid that this film would be one of those; a heavy-handed, preachy, over-the-top melodrama. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This is an important film, one that should be required viewing in every high school. Surprisingly entertaining and insightful, this a masterpiece of modern film-making, proving that in the right hands, even watching people vote can be a thrilling cinematic experience.