Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln was unveiled Monday as the secret screening at the 50th New York Film Festival (last year’s honor went to Martin Scorsese’s Hugo), and the director was on hand to introduce the early look at his biographical war drama. In a brief address, Spielberg divulged the film isn’t quite finished, praised Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as the 16th president, and admitted, “This has been a journey for me unlike any other.”
Based on the tone of Lincoln, which boasts far fewer of the cloying melodramatics, sweeping battle sequences and grandiose set pieces showcased in last year’s War Horse, Spielberg’s words seem to ring true. Lincoln is a surprisingly pared-down film for a director known for his epics. Filled with low-lit, smoky back-room discussions, it focuses more on the intricate effects that war and slavery have had on the political (and the personal) climate. This is essentially a film about the fight to gain votes in the House of Representatives, to secure the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (which outlawed slavery) — a two-hour “how a bill becomes a law”-style operation, if you will.
That may sound a bit dry, and, frankly, it is. As early trailers suggest, the movie is a deliberately paced history lesson, a glimpse behind the curtain during the latter part of Lincoln’s presidency, as the Civil War is entering its fourth year and the Thirteenth Amendment is something of a metaphorical powder keg.
The strength of Lincoln lies, surprisingly, not just in Day-Lewis (who, as expected, is exceptional in the role), but also in the incredible supporting cast Spielberg has gathered. Day-Lewis’ unparalleled acting ability is, at this point, a self-evident truth (to borrow a phrase from his characters’ predecessors), so much so that it still comes as a surprise when his co-stars are able to step from beneath his shadow and shine. While Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln) and Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln) sadly falter here — Gordon-Levitt’s role doesn’t advance the story and could easily be cut, and Field is generally reduced to glorified hissy fits and moments of anger that barely scratch an emotional surface — countless others are on point. Most notably: Tommy Lee Jones (as Thaddeus Stevens), who is equal parts curmudgeonly, intelligent, hilarious and, in moments, surprisingly vulnerable. He owns his scenes entirely, and will certainly earn supporting-actor nods for his performance.
Also delightful are James Spader (as WN Bilbo), John Hawkes (as Robert Latham) and Tim Blake Nelson (as Richard Schell), who serve up a large portion of the film’s surprisingly humorous moments as a trio of bribing vote-hunters; they deserve their own spinoff. And David Strathairn (as Secretary of State William Seward), is solid as Lincoln’s right-hand man, a level-headed adviser who isn’t afraid to go to extreme lengths for the greater good.
While Lincoln contains its moments of humor, offers an intricately crafted glimpse behind the political curtain of the time, and boasts phenomenal supporting performances, it never quite elevates itself beyond serving as a platform upon which to string together speech after speech made by Day-Lewis. There’s nothing particularly new learned about Lincoln the man — yes, he liked to tell stories (often to droning effect), he was a complicated family man, he and his wife’s relationship was stressed by the pressure cooker of the country’s political and social climates — but Lincoln never quite rises above being a gorgeously rendered page from any number of American history books.
The movie will delight history buffs and Day-Lewis fans (the man’s Oscar nomination is in the bag), but it’s going to isolate audiences who expect less character drama and more action, or who are hoping for a more-enlightening peek into the life of one of America’s most beloved presidents. Lincoln feels like a jumping-off point for many of its themes; it’ll be used as fodder for discussion in high-school classrooms for years to come, certainly, but it’s doubtful the halls of cinematic history will display it in quite as high regard.
Lincoln opens nationwide Nov. 16.