Review: “Lincoln” is an actors showcase led by Daniel-Day Lewis

November 16th, 2012 at 12:00 am by under Entertainment

We’ve never seen the 16th president of the United States in TV clips or even hear him in a radio broadcast… but Daniel-Day Lewis’ portrayal of Abraham Lincoln will now be the defining version of President Lincoln for me.

Warning to parents: “Lincoln” is rated PG-13 due to images related to war and death and some strong language.

“Lincoln” poster courtesy DreamWorks/ Touchstone Pictures

(My spoiler-free review)

“Lincoln” looks great and feels like we’re seeing life in the late 1800′s… both in sets, costumes, lighting, and dialogue.

Director Steven Spielberg does a very good job making interesting a storyline that we already know the ending to… Congress passing the Thirteenth Amendment in February 1865 – abolishing slavery in the United States.

At its core, it plays out very much like a modern day political drama – with many advisers and political allies weighing in on Presidential decisions.  The backroom politics and the vivid characters and the struggles that the characters are going through make the story interesting.   Many of the characters look like Lincoln’s cabinet and the prominent politicians of the day seen in old photographs and paintings.

Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is slow, deliberate, and matter-of-fact… and so is the movie… it feels every bit of its 2 hours and 29 minute runtime.   But its the movie version of history class… albeit a small slice of U.S. History… because we only get to experience a few months of his time as President.  Through Day-Lewis we see how gifted a speaker and storyteller Lincoln was (afterall, his Gettysburg Address (1863) is one of the most quoted speeches in American history).  This Lincoln tells stories… he enjoys telling stories… and even pushes forward on a story after a grumpy Bruce McGill (as Edwin Stanton (Secretary of War)) exclaims “No! You’re not going to tell another story.”

Hal Holbrook (seated-left), Daniel Day-Lewis (center), David Strathairn (seated-right), David Costabile (standing-right) in “Lincoln” photo courtesy DreamWorks/ Touchstone Pictures

Day-Lewis’ delivery and folksy persona help us understand why Lincoln was treasured by so many but was at the same time hated for his perseverance and determination to see the abolition of slavery.  The years of political struggles and the war clearly took an emotional and physical toll on him.  He is terrific as the beleaguered yet steadfast President driven by higher moral values, and perhaps political/military motivations.  Much of his acting is done without words… its the look on his face, his stare while deep in thought, his smile, he appears tired and worn out, but still pushes on.  Day-Lewis’ physical and vocal transformation into Lincoln are nothing short of award consideration, but his characterization of Lincoln’s warmth, charm and intellect are mesmerizing… he commands every scene…. worthy of an Oscar nomination in any year.

Lucky for us, he’s not alone…. supported by a very strong cast… typical for a Spielberg epic.  Sally Field is Lincoln’s troubled wife Mary Todd Lincoln, who is dealing with the impact of years of political struggle, the war, and the lasting affects of a carriage accident.  David Strathairn is Lincoln’s Secretary of State – William Seward and trusted advisor who wants to be the voice of political reason.  Hal Holbrook brings instant credibility as influential politician Preston Blair, while Tommy Lee Jones acts his way out of a ridiculous wig as the powerful Republican politician Thaddeus Stevens (Rep. from Pennsylvania).  James Spader and John Hawkes bring some comedic breaks as serious political operatives Mr. Bilbo and Mr. Latham.

Sally Field talking to Tommy Lee Jones in “Lincoln” photo courtesy DreamWorks/ Touchstone Pictures

Lee Pace as Fernando Wood (Democrat Rep. from New York), Michael Stuhlbarg as George Yeaman (Unionist Representative from Kentucky), Boris McGiver as Alexander Coffroth (Democrat Rep. from Pennsylvania), David Costabile as James Ashley (Republican Rep. from Ohio), and Tim Blake Nelson as Richard Schell (Representative from New York) bring to life the pivotal politicians involved in the debate about the 13th Amendment… the ones we may have read about in books and saw only in a few old black and white portraits.

Based on old photographs of Alexander Stephens (Vice President of the Confederate States), Jackie Earle Haley seemed born to play the part both in look and his acting style.  Jared Harris also seems a great fit as General Ulysses S. Grant, despite the small role.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln the oldest son and Gulliver McGrath as youngest son Tad Lincoln fill a familiar Spielberg motif – a strained father-son relationship and communication issues among family.

Unfortunately, my expectations were set very high due to my interest in the civil war as a child (after a visit to Gettysburg) and the director and cast involved in the movie.  While that’s probably not fair to Mr. Spielberg to have my expectations set so high, my disappointments were mostly about what was not covered in this story – not about the overall production of the movie.  While intriguing, “Lincoln” is more important than traditionally entertaining but its epic feel and yet narrow scope will be sure to get it a lot of Oscar attention.


“Lincoln” reminds us of our storied political history as we emerge from another election season…. the showcase of actors in this great cast help keep this sometimes slow moving epic afloat… I give it 8.9 out of 10.  It may not be the most entertaining movie of the year, but the top notch performances will be remembered like the historic characters they play.

Video of my review from EightWest:

MORE INFO (possible spoilers):

Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln” photo courtesy DreamWorks/ Touchstone Pictures


(2012) (rated: PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language)
(2 hours, 29 minutes)

Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Gulliver McGrath, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Costabile

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Tony Kushner (screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (book)

Genre: Biography/Drama/History/War

The Plot: As the Civil War continues to rage, America’s president struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield and as he fights with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves.

So what did you think?  Please post a comment!

“Lincoln” poster and photos courtesy DreamWorks/Touchstone Pictures

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