Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lee Pace
Director: Steven Spielberg
Plot Synopsis: 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.
Philip French, The Observer - The Guardian
Steven Spielberg has made more obviously entertaining and more emotionally seductive movies than Lincoln, but this is for him the most brave and, for the audience, most demanding picture in the 40 years since his emergence as a major director. It's a film about statesmanship, politics, the creation of the world's greatest democracy, and it's concerned with what we can learn from the study and contemplation of history. Spielberg and his eloquent screenwriter, the playwright Tony Kushner, handle these themes with flair, imagination and vitality, and Daniel Day-Lewis embodies them with an indelible intelligence as the 16th president of the United States.
In a towering performance, Day-Lewis encompasses the great statesman who shaped history, the intimate man of the people and the mysterious, charismatic figure who so fascinated Picasso that he collected thousands of pictures of him and once held up a photograph of Lincoln, proclaiming: "There is the real American elegance!"
Verdict: Daniel Day-Lewis gives a towering performance in Steven Spielberg's bravest picture to date
Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
Hollywood's most successful director turns on a dime and delivers his most restrained, interior film. A celebrated playwright shines an illuminating light on no more than a sliver of a great man's life. A brilliant actor surpasses even himself and makes us see a celebrated figure in ways we hadn't anticipated. This is the power and the surprise of Lincoln.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, written by Tony Kushner and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th president of the United States, Lincoln unfolds during the final four months of the chief executive's life as he focuses his energies on a dramatic struggle that has not previously loomed large in political mythology: his determination to get the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery.
This narrow focus has paradoxically enabled us to see Lincoln whole in a way a more broad-ranging film might have been unable to match. It has also made for a movie whose pleasures are subtle ones, that knows how to reveal the considerable drama inherent in the overarching battle of big ideas over the amendment as well as the small-bore skirmishes of political strategy and the nitty-gritty scramble for congressional votes.
The key speaker, obviously, is Day-Lewis. No one needs to be told at this late date what a consummate actor he is, but even those used to the way he disappears into roles will be startled by the marvelously relaxed way he morphs into this character and simply becomes Lincoln. While his heroic qualities are visible when they're needed, Day-Lewis' Lincoln is a deeply human individual, stooped and weary after four years of civil war but endowed with a palpable largeness of spirit and a genuine sense of humor.
Verdict: History comes alive in the best way in 'Lincoln,' which finds director Steven Spielberg and star Daniel Day-Lewis at the top of their form.
Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
In adapting just a small part of Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, the 2005 bestseller about Lincoln and his Cabinet, screenwriter Tony Kushner blows the dust off history by investing it with flesh, blood and churning purpose. Kushner lets the words come in torrents as Lincoln uses every argument and backroom trick at his disposal to force friend and foe to heal a divided nation. From January to April 1865, the newly re-elected president is torn apart by the bloody Civil War, rattled by domestic battles with his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), and yet lit by a fire in his belly to jam a 13th Amendment through Congress that will forever abolish slavery.
Though Day-Lewis plays Lincoln as the calm center in this storm, the actor is expert at letting us see tensions roiling inside him. At home, he soothes his depressive wife – he calls her Molly – who demands that he forbid their eldest son, Robert (a splendid Joseph Gordon- Levitt), from enlisting. Molly spends days brooding in the room of their son Willie, who died of typhoid in 1862, leaving her husband to care for their youngest son, Tad, 12. Field is a live wire as a first lady who won't bend to convention. She is hard on advisers who criticize her spending on a White House she calls a "pig sty." She accepts that history will lionize her husband and dismiss her as "a crazy lady." The role is a tour de force for Field, and she fills it with flame and inner terror.
...The darkness of the film is undeniable. This is a warrior Lincoln pushed to the wall, and aggressively, sometimes blindly, pushing back. Day-Lewis' surpassing artistry makes that a sight to behold. He uses a thin, high voice to approximate the real Lincoln's sound. But its force is always felt. This Lincoln can whisper across canyons.
He can also break your heart. A haunting image is of Lincoln alone, walking through the White House at night like a tormented ghost. I could have used more of that torment. Some scenes of unventilated rhetoric are stagy to a fault, and the script never grapples with how Lincoln's early acceptance of slavery morphed into a zeal to end it. Yet the movie holds us in its grip. Lincoln represents what Teddy Roosevelt defined as "the man in the arena," who even if he fails "at least fails while daring greatly." Spielberg, Kushner and Day-Lewis also dare greatly in giving us this complex, conflicted portrait of a great American leader. The result, glitches and all, is a great American movie.
Verdict: It's a hell of a thing, this Lincoln, a portrait of America as a parade of eloquent, stubborn, patriotic, rebellious, manipulative, passionate talking heads spoiling to be heard.
AO SCOTT, New York Times
After a brutal, kinetic beginning — a scene of muddy, hand-to-hand combat that evokes the opening of “Saving Private Ryan”— “Lincoln” settles down into what looks like the familiar pageantry and speechifying of costume drama. A flock of first-rate character actors parades by in the heavy woolen plumage of the past. The smaller, plainer America of the mid-19th century is evoked by the brownish chiaroscuro of Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, by the mud, brick and wood of Rick Carter’s production design and by enough important facial hair to make the young beard farmers of 21st-century Brooklyn weep tears of envy.
The most famous and challenging beard of them all sits on the chin of Daniel Day-Lewis, who eases into a role of epic difficulty as if it were a coat he had been wearing for years. It is both a curiosity and a marvel of modern cinema that this son of an Anglo-Irish poet should have become our leading portrayer of archaic Americans. Hawkeye (in “Last of the Mohicans”), Bill the Butcher (“Gangs of New York”), Daniel Plainview (“There Will Be Blood”) — all are figures who live in the dim borderlands of memory and myth, but with his angular frame and craggy features, Mr. Day-Lewis turns them into flesh and blood.
Above all, he gives them voice. His Lincoln speaks in a reedy drawl that provides a notable counterpoint to the bombastic bellowing of some of his allies and adversaries. (John Williams’s score echoes this contrast by punctuating passages of orchestral grandeur with homey scraps of fiddle, banjo and parlor piano.)
This is, in other words, less a biopic than a political thriller, a civics lesson that is energetically staged and alive with moral energy. Lincoln, having just won re-election, faces a complex predicament. The war has turned in the Union’s favor, but the Capitol is in some turmoil. Lincoln must contend with a Democratic opposition that reviles him as a dictator (“Abraham Africanus,” they call him) and also with a deep, factional split within the Republican Party.
And the genius of “Lincoln,” finally, lies in its vision of politics as a noble, sometimes clumsy dialectic of the exalted and the mundane. Our habit of argument, someone said recently, is a mark of our liberty, and Mr. Kushner, whose love of passionate, exhaustive disputation is unmatched in the modern theater, fills nearly every scene with wonderful, maddening talk. Mr. Spielberg’s best art often emerges in passages of wordlessness, when the images speak for themselves, and the way he composes his pictures and cuts between them endow the speeches and debates with emotional force, and remind us of what is at stake.
Verdict: Go see this movie. Take your children, even though they may occasionally be confused or fidgety. Boredom and confusion are also part of democracy, after all. “Lincoln” is a rough and noble democratic masterpiece — an omen, perhaps, that movies for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly
As the title character of Steven Spielberg's solemnly transfixing Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis is tall and elegantly stooped, with thatchy gray-black hair, sunken cheeks, and a grin that tugs at the corners of his mouth whenever he tries to win someone over by telling them a good story (which is often). Day-Lewis looks so much like the photographs of Abraham Lincoln that you don't have to squint, even a bit, to buy that it's him. He nails Lincoln's thousand-yard stare — a gaze directed at once inward (at the whir of his own mental machinery) and outward (at the cosmic hum of history). Day-Lewis' performance has a beautiful gravitas, yet there's nothing too severe about it. He gives Lincoln a surprisingly plainspoken, reedy high voice that retains the courtly cadences of the South. That voice — from everything we know, it's quite accurate — makes Lincoln sound like Will Rogers as a professor of human nature. This Lincoln lives deep inside his own unruly-haired head, yet he loves the people around him, even the ignorant (and racist) common folk, who repay the favor by loving him back. And that's where he draws his political force.
Lincoln, which Spielberg has directed from a lyrical, ingeniously structured screenplay by Tony Kushner, is one of the most authentic biographical dramas I've ever seen. But that doesn't mean it's a stiff-jointed history lesson. The movie is grand and immersive. It plugs us into the final months of Lincoln's presidency with a purity that makes us feel transported as though by time machine. (Kushner is the husband of EW columnist Mark Harris.)
Lincoln brilliantly dramatizes the delicacy of politics, along with the raw brutality of it. All that's pushing the amendment forward is Abe Lincoln's will, his ability to do anything — even flirt with impeachable deceptions — to fulfill his vision of justice. And that's why he spends the movie alone in spirit. When he bangs his hand on the table, roaring at his lobbyists to procure him the votes he needs because he's ''clothed in immense power,'' we're seeing the birth of the presidency as we know it — a force that can shape the consciousness of the world. Lincoln is a stirring paradox, a dream of history as it might truly have happened.
Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter
Far from being a traditional biographical drama, Lincoln dedicates itself to doing something very few Hollywood films have ever attempted, much less succeeded at: showing, from historical example, how our political system works in an intimate procedural and personal manner. That the case in point is the hair-breadth passage by the House of Representatives of the epochal 13th Amendment abolishing slavery and that the principal orchestrator is President Abraham Lincoln in the last days of his life endow Steven Spielberg's film with a great theme and subject, which are honored with intelligence, humor and relative restraint. Tony Kushner's densely packed script has been directed by Spielberg in an efficient, unpretentious way that suggests Michael Curtiz at Warner Bros. in the 1940s, right down to the rogue's gallery of great character actors in a multitude of bewhiskered supporting roles backing up a first-rate leading performance by Daniel Day-Lewis. The wall-to-wall talk and lack of much Civil War action might give off the aroma of schoolroom medicine to some, but the elemental drama being played out, bolstered by the prestige of the participants and a big push by Disney, should make this rare film about American history pay off commercially.
Fundamentally unhappy in his family life with his almost continually complaining wife Mary (a very good Sally Field), who despairs of being condemned to “four more years in this terrible house,” and oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a college lad desperate to enlist in the Army over his parents' objections, Lincoln seems to find the greatest pleasure in spinning amusing life-lesson yarns dating to his lawyering days. The film accrues much-needed levity from these interludes, less from the stories themselves than from the reactions of his captive audiences; by the third or fourth time Lincoln embarks on one of his tales, the polite attention paid by his listeners has descended to “here-he-goes-again” eye-rolling and ill-concealed smirking.
Other than Day-Lewis, acting honors go to Jones, who clearly relishes the rich role of Stevens and whose crusty smarts prove both formidable and funny. Very much a good guy here, Stevens in earlier cinematic days was always portrayed as an extremist villain, both in The Birth of a Nation and in the odd 1943 Andrew Johnson biographical drama Tennessee Johnson.
Verdict: An absorbing, densely packed, sometimes funny telling of the 16th president's masterful effort in manipulating the passage of the 13th Amendment.
Our Verdict: This film is a must-watch for its terrifically unique and realistic narrative and of course the Lincoln doppelganger (in more than one respect) Daniel-Day Lewis.