In the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” a very quiet but likable Abraham Lincoln sits patiently as Union soldiers express their opinions to the then-acting president of the Untitled States.
It’s a simple scene, where the actor portraying Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis, sits motionless and says almost nothing throughout its duration. But somehow by the scene’s end — with no sweeping gestures or clever dialogue delivery — Day-Lewis conveys that he has once again immersed himself into his character and that for the remaining 145 minutes, audience members will be treated to arguably the most convincing portrayal of the 16th president ever captured on film.
Fortunately, it’s obvious that Spielberg had complete faith in his leading man and took a stand-back approach to directing Day-Lewis and the more-than-competent supporting cast. Unfortunately, Spielberg seems to have offered an equal level of trust to writer Tony Kushner, who, while capturing many compelling and poignant moments, sacrificed story for scope — a decision which often leaves the film feeling aimless.
“Lincoln” does a reasonable job of examining many of the conflicts President Lincoln might have faced in a war-torn America. One story follows Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) as she struggles to move beyond the grief of losing a son while at the same time being asked to wear a strong face for political gatherings and public events. Field is solid in her depiction of the first lady and she and Day-Lewis seem comfortable portraying an aging married couple, despite Field being 10 years older than the actor.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays President Lincoln’s privileged son, Robert, who is tired of standing on the sidelines while the rest of the nation’s youths are being asked to fight for their country. The few scenes Gordon-Levitt enjoys are a worthwhile consideration, and as usual, he delivers a great performance. But the scenes may have been better fit for DVD extras or later extended cuts of the film.
The main focus of the film is President Lincoln’s behind-closed-door political discussions and the necessary secret dealings he leveraged to push through the 13th Amendment of the Constitution.
Each individual scene and exchange is compelling and often beautiful. The players involved are colorful, led by the delightfully hammy Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader. But as the scenes stack up and are laid out as a single narrative, the film begins to fall in on itself. There is no real direction or grounding conflict to invest in and, as a result, each new scene after the two-hour mark feels like a possible ending.
In fact, “Lincoln” gives “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” a run for its money for the honor of having the most endings in a single movie.
But while the film may not work in its entirety, it’s still definitely worth your time. The moments that do work are some of the best of 2012, and Day-Lewis’ performance is a wonderful tribute to the man so many Americans love and admire.
The film is rated PG-13 because of some vulgarity, and brief scenes containing gruesome battle shots of wounded soldiers.
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