Movie review: Lincoln

By Columbus Alive
From the November 15, 2012 edition

That Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is a great film is not surprising, but how it is may be. If there’s a running theme, it’s “make legislation, not war.”

If you go expecting a Spielberg-helmed Civil War epic, you will come away surprised, but the procedural drama packs a different kind of punch than scenes from the battlefield.

Oh, and you’ve got Daniel Day-Lewis giving yet another transformative performance. Somebody buy this guy some more Oscar polish already.

“Lincoln” avoids one of the pitfalls of biopics in not trying to sum up a life over the course of a film. Its focus is squarely on Lincoln’s final months in office as he navigates both ending the Civil War and finding legislative support for the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.

Spielberg isn’t managing epic battle scenes or computer-generated dinosaurs here, but we get another taste of why he’s a supremely talented director. He’s assembled a stellar cast (and lets them show it). And he manages to wrench real tension — action, almost — out of a bunch of old white guys talking.

The biggest flaw may be a bit of clunky exposition in the opening act, but the film is well-paced and doesn’t feel like the dry history lesson it could have — especially with a 2 1/2-hour running time.

As for Day-Lewis, what else can be said? His performance in “There Will Be Blood” was the best by an actor since his performance in “Gangs of New York.” The superlatives continue in “Lincoln.”

You lose the actor in the role. The Lincoln we know is on-screen. He’s affable and wise, but the weight of his almost immeasurable task shows in weary eyes. It’s a less explosive performance than Daniel Plainview or Bill the Butcher, but no less enthralling.

“Lincoln” also boasts the sort of ridiculously good supporting cast one would expect from this project, but two actors stand out. Tommy Lee Jones’ fiery orator Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field’s tormented Mary Todd Lincoln both should garner Oscar nods.

This wasn’t the “Lincoln” I was expecting from Spielberg, but the one I got was moving and enlightening.