With its cast, director and subject matter, "Lincoln" seems like a lock for a lot of awards-season accolades.
But it's the execution, not the pedigree, that determines the real quality of a movie. And with actors firing on all cylinders plenty of drama and a surprising amount of humor, "Lincoln" most definitely delivers.
Ten minutes into Steven Spielberg's chronicle of the 16th president's efforts to pass the 13th amendment to the Constitution and bring an end to slavery, he and his star have already accomplished the rather daunting task of bringing the iconic Lincoln down to Earth while leaving his legendary aura intact. Whereas many actors' abilities can be appreciated even as they play a role based on their own projected persona, Day-Lewis ("There Will Be Blood") disappears into Lincoln, bringing him to familiar life without ever seeming like an animated history book page.
The same can't be said of Tommy Lee Jones ("Men in Black 3") as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, an ardent abolitionist whose dedication to the cause at times endangers it. But this is a rough-around-the-edges, take-no-guff leader, so who better than Jones to take on the role?
For some reason, I was thinking of Sally Field ("The Amazing Spider-Man") as a bit of a lightweight when compared to the rest of the predominantly male cast, but she proved me wrong with her performance as Mary Todd Lincoln. Beset by miserable headaches and mental instability, the first lady serves as both a source of frustration and strength for her husband.
I wasn't expecting much comic relief in a historical film on such a serious subject, but it's there, often thanks to James Spader ("The Office") as a man of questionable reputation hired to help grease the wheels and get enough support from Democrats to get the amendment passed.
One of the central themes of the film is whether the end of thwarting slavery once and for all justify means like political horse trading, white-ish lies and half-truths and even delaying peace talks with the Confederacy. Lincoln himself is troubled by such questionable tactics, even as he decides to employ them.
The film doesn't attempt to make Lincoln out to be a saint. His critics are vocal, and their assertions don't seem at all implausible. What is perhaps most impressive is Lincoln's determination to plunge forward even amid the doubts with which he's so obviously dueling.
My only disappointment with the film came from the language. The official MPAA rating mentions only "brief strong language." That may apply to one word, but there are several terms tossed out with surprising frequency. I don't expect the film to be without profanity (nor do I believe the actual historical figures confined themselves to G-rated language) but it seemed a bit much at times.
Some of the political wrangling is a bit hard to follow, as is the identity of an occasional character or two, but that's more a product of the massive amount of moving pieces in the film than a real failing by Spielberg or screenwriter Tony Kushner ("Angels in America"). Many of the minor characters are given a lot more life and personality than you might expect, even for their brief appearances.
I hesitate to take any movie as a history lesson, but "Lincoln" certainly makes me want to read up on the president and this period in our history. You can't separate the movie from that context, but you don't have to be an expert on it to appreciate the fantastic film Spielberg and company have crafted.