In 2008, newly elected President Barack Obama announced he would assemble a cabinet inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln—the same book that became the basis for Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film, “Lincoln.”
But Spielberg was inspired first. When Goodwin, who was working with Spielberg as a technical consultant in 1999, told him what her next project was, he asked her on the spot if he could buy the film rights. DreamWorks signed on in 2001, yet the project really never took off until Liam Neeson bowed out of the title role and Daniel Day-Lewis came onboard.
Funny how things happen. We’ll never know if Neeson would have won an Academy Award for Best Actor as Day-Lewis did, but it certainly looks as if the long germination period had a positive effect on the film’s reception—partly because of the emergence of LGBT (Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender) rights as a social and civil rights issue, and the public’s shift in favor of equal treatment. Audiences (and lawmakers) can’t help but think of the current debate during the film’s crucial scene in which Congressmen cast their votes on the right—or wrong—side of history.
At times, you almost expect a background orchestra to break into a stirring rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Spielberg’s film gets so . . . well, dramatically historical. At times, Lincoln speaks things that were actually written in real life, so they come across as platitudes or stiff speeches. At times, Spielberg gets a little sentimental with his melodrama (or melodramatic with his sentiment), as when Lincoln encounters two black soldiers early in the film. And at 150 minutes, “Lincoln” has the length of an epic, but the slow pacing and heady dialogue of a PBS production.
Yet, “Lincoln” is still a compelling film, and Day-Lewis’s performance is the stick-um that holds it all together. The hair and make-up people don’t get enough credit for the transformation, but I absolutely love his interpretation of our 16th President. Biographers and historians have found documents that tell us Lincoln was scholarly but unpretentious, a “rustic” who loved a good story and dirty joke as much as the next person, someone who was deliberate in his speaking, and who had an uncommonly high-pitched voice. In the last department, Day-Lewis only manages to climb into the same register as folksy character actor Walter Brennan, but he nails everything else. And besides, go too high and you’d have Lincoln on helium.
The saga gets off to a curious and somewhat misleading start, though, with a furious battle scene from the Civil War that acts as a hyperactive prologue to a film that, like Lincoln is said to have done, “drags his feet.” “Lincoln” has the same pacing as some of the literate TV dramas like “I, Claudius,” and the same emphasis on relationships, characters plotting various things, and a main character whom everyone both respects yet underestimates.
The most fascinating moments come from “West Wing” style political strategizing, with a backdoor combination of politicking, persuasion, bribery, threats, and coercion that was behind Congress’s eventual passage of the Constitutional amendment to ban slavery. But other scenes also stand out, as when Lincoln takes his son to a military hospital to show him the carnage so he’ll change his mind about enlisting, yet has to go inside alone after Robert refuses to join him. As it turns out, what Robert sees outside is far more unsettling.
Lincoln’s second wife, Mary (Sally Field), was institutionalized at one point, and Lincoln himself suffered from what today would be called depression. Those emotional landscapes are supported by dark or dimly lit interior shots, and the cinematography incorporates plenty of smoke and haze in the exteriors as well, to emphasize the war and the dark period that the nation was enduring.
Of the many actors who turn in fine performances, the ones who stand out are Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the President’s son, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, and James Spader as a shady political backroom dealer.
“Do you think we choose the times into which we are born?” Lincoln asks. “Or do we fit the times we are born into?”
Lincoln was fascinated by philosophical inquiry and Spielberg’s film captures that as much as any other aspect. Pay attention as you watch, because there are plenty more lessons here than the story of how the United States abolished slavery. But watch this when you’re feeling alert and refreshed—otherwise, the pacing and sheer length will be too much.
The darkness and haze can cause fits for some studios, but DreamWorks manages a video presentation that’s rich in detail, even in all those dark or muted scenes. And the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer protects that detail. Close-ups on Day-Lewis show just how good those make-up and hair people are, and the colors of the 1860s that predominate are faithfully reproduced. Look for a lot of browns and creams and greys in scenes where politics are taking place, and in the interiors darkened by fewer Victorian era windows and decor. The haze and the sunlight coming into dark spaces create a soft look for many of the scenes, but it’s wholly deliberate, and adds to the visual sense of period. “Lincoln” is presented in 2.40:1 aspect ratio.
The English DTS-HD MA 7.1 audio comes too life not just during loud scenes, but in the quiet ones as well, contributing ambience from both sets of effects speakers. The LFE channel doesn’t get as much of a workout as it might in other 150-minute films because “Lincoln” is so dialogue driven, but the soundtrack feels rich and full, with great clarity and purity of tone. Additional audio options are French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish.
“Lincoln” is available in a 2-disc combo or 4-disc combo, the latter (this one) featuring both a Blu-ray and DVD bonus disc of extras with roughly 80 minutes more extras than you get on the other release. Some of the features are best watched before the film, while others should wait until after.
“The Journey to Lincoln” is an under 10-minute making-of summary that feels like an intro and probably ought to be the first thing you pop in your player. DreamWorks probably envisioned it that way, as it’s on the first disc. Same with “A Historic Tapestry: Richmond, Virginia,” which, at just 4 minutes long, isn’t going to add a lot of time to your movie experience, but it can give you another nice appreciation.
The second-disc extras are led by a 27-minute making-of feature, “Living with Lincoln,” which economically covers just about every aspect of making the film, detailing Spielberg’s well-known obsession for accuracy and detail and the amount of research that was done to ensure the film’s integrity. “Crafting the Past” is an 11-minute feature that further riffs on the subject of production design, which earned “Lincoln” its second Oscar. It too is quite good, but best watched after the fact. Same with “In Lincoln’s Footsteps,” which in 17 minutes tries to explain the techniques that were used to try to draw viewers into a film that’s so long and so dependent upon dialogue.
Finally, “In the Company of Character” runs just 10 minutes and is mainly a round-up of actors talking about their characters and other performances—including method actor Day-Lewis’ 24/7 Lincoln revival.
If you look at it objectively, though, you’d have to say that the number and length of bonus features seems scant for a second disc. Lincoln buffs might have wished for a more traditional talking heads treatment, with Goodwin and other Lincoln scholars weighing in, and there’s not nearly enough on visual effects.
Many films have tried to capture the essence of President Lincoln in the past, including John Ford's excellent "Young Mr. Lincoln" (1939). But Spielberg’s “Lincoln” gives us the fullest portrait of the man on the five dollar bill that Hollywood has produced.