[Screen It]


(2012) (Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field) (PG-13)

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Drama: Having just started his second term, President Abraham Lincoln works to get the 13th Amendment passed while simultaneously trying to bring about an end to the Civil War.
It's January 1865 and Abraham Lincoln (DANIEL DAY-LEWIS) has just been sworn in for his second term as President of the United States. The Civil War is still waging on, led on the North's side by Ulysses S. Grant (JARED HARRIS), but many want it to draw to a close, including Lincoln. With youngest son Tad (GULLIVER McGRATH) running about underfoot, wife Mary (SALLY FIELD) becoming unhinged at times due to her headaches and continued grief over the loss of a son in the past; and oldest son Robert (JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT) desperately wanting to join the Army, the President has a full agenda.

That includes his desire to abolish slavery via the Thirteenth Amendment, something fervently supported by Republican House Ways and Means Committee chairman Thaddeus Stevens (TOMMY LEE JONES) and equally opposed by Congressman Fernando Wood (LEE PACE) and his cronies. In hopes of eliciting the House votes needs to ensure passage, Secretary of State William Seward (DAVID STRATHAIRN) employs three operatives -- Richard Schell (TIM BLAKE NELSON), Robert Latham (JOHN HAWKES) and William N. Bilboe (JAMES SPADER) -- to do whatever it takes to convince the holdouts and fence sitters to vote their way.

At the same time, influential Republican operative Francis Preston Blair (HAL HOLBROOK) sets out to establish a potential peace treaty between the North and South, the latter represented by Vice President of the Confederate States of America Alexander Stephens (JACKIE EARLE HALEY). With time running out before the pivotal vote, Lincoln does what he can to get the amendment passed, all while balancing that against the needs of ending the war.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
By the time you're reading this review, the United States has reelected our 44th President for a second term in office. Amazingly, for all of those men before him, many are all but forgotten except to historians and trivia hounds. Of course, a select few stand out, not only for their achievements during their terms in office, but also for how the country has remembered them since then. After all, only four have memorials or monuments in our nation's capital, and a slightly larger number appear on U.S. bills and coins in current circulation, but only a total of four again appear on Mount Rushmore.

Yet, for the many times our 16th President shows up there and elsewhere, many people would be hard pressed to name films in which he appears (and no, the one where he kills vampires or appears with Bill & Ted don't count, at least in terms of accuracy). People with long memories might recall Henry Fonda playing him in 1939's "Young Mr. Lincoln," but any other portrayals of note (Hal Holbrook, Gregory Peck, Sam Waterston, etc.) all appeared in TV miniseries or movies. The rest of the cinematic ones are just forgettable small or cameo parts.

All of that should change with the arrival of the simply titled "Lincoln." Considering the pedigree involved with it -- Oscar winner Steven Spielberg behind the camera, Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner penning the script, and Oscar winners Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones along with Oscar nominees David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook and Jackie Earle Haley appearing up on the screen -- this high profile flick should put Honest Abe on the cinematic radar for some time.

That said, it's a good but not great film featuring yet another tour de force performance by Day-Lewis, who should be all but be a certain lock on walking off the stage with his third Academy Award next February. Known for fully immersing himself in his roles and even staying in character during the down-time of shooting, the terrific actor so becomes the man -- or at least our rose-colored, hindsight-inspired view of the legend -- that you forget you're watching an actor ply his trade.

Be it the President's soft-spokenness, determination, indignation or way of spinning a yarn, you simply can't take your eyes off the character. It's so uncanny that Disney -- who's releasing the film -- might just have to use Day-Lewis' voice to rerecord the audio for animatronic Lincoln in their Hall of President's exhibit as anyone who visits that attraction after seeing the film might think, "He doesn't sound right" if the change isn't made.

Rather than attempt to do an entire biopic on the man, Spielberg and company settle on his last few months in office (and, sadly, life) for the setting of their tale. And the vast majority of that is set in January 1865, just after Lincoln has begun his second term in the White House. With his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation not perceived by some as legally binding, he decided to make it a law with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, an act that would outlaw slavery. The Senate had already passed it earlier the year before, and now it sits in front of the House of Representatives.

Thus, while there are personal sides to the story -- involving wife Mary (Sally Field) having occasional fits of melodrama, young son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) underfoot and older son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sensing he must give up his studies to join the war lest he not be able to live with himself -- the lion's share revolves around wrangling up House votes to pass the amendment.

As a result, some of that suffers from a "been there, seen that before" mindset in those who've seen something similar in films such as "An American President" or episodes of "The West Wing." Granted, the stakes are a bit higher here, what with slavery and the potential end of the Civil War being in play, and some may find that sort of political process interesting if never exposed to it before. Others, though, might be less involved in the proposed building drama, especially since we know how things ultimately turn out.

It also doesn't help that a plethora of characters come and go throughout the story, some of which don't end up amounting to much. Some are good, including David Strathairn and Tommy Lee Jones playing government sympathizers with Lincoln's cause, and Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and a nearly unrecognizable James Spader provide some comic relief as a trio assigned to get votes from the fence sitters or reluctant switch hitters. Many of the rest, however, give the impression that perhaps a longer cut of the film existed at one point where the briefly seen and/or superfluous characters were more fully fleshed out.

It's also somewhat surprising that if one didn't know Spielberg was behind the camera, they'd be hard pressed to guess who directed the film. None of it's bad, but with few flourishes and a mostly subdued score by longtime collaborator John Williams, there are few if any telltale signs that the legendary director was behind the effort. Of course, those who don't like some or all of his usual signature elements might not mind the anonymous feel.

But no one will or could possibly miss the work by Day-Lewis. While the limited temporal frame prevents us from knowing what past events shaped the man and his thinking, the performer's portrayal comes off exactly like most of us picture the 16th President being as a man, husband, father and leader. It's a remarkable performance and one that gives "Lincoln" its heart and soul and the President a very prominent portrayal in the annals of the cinema. I just wish the rest of the film was as great as its star. The film rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed October 25, 2012 / Posted November 9, 2012

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