Directed by Steven Spielberg and with an all-star cast led by two-time Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln was expected to be the significant film to come out in 2012. The movie, with merely minor flaws, was built for the Oscars.
While it mostly lives up to expectation, there is enough at fault in the film that the academy would be ill-advised to anoint it Best Picture - and anything less, for such a movie, is falling short.
First off: The film is not the expansive biopic of our 16th president that the title may suggest. The real story of Lincoln isn’t the man himself, rather the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It has a narrow focus, the majority of action spanning just a few weeks in January 1865.
That, however, is the greatest strength of the film. By going for depth instead of breadth, Lincoln is able to delve deep into the nitty-gritty technicality of legislation. The plot is driven by the legislative deals Abraham Lincoln and his administration make with the variety of congressmen needed to pass the amendment.
The film is undeniably dry - it’s telling that the most exciting moments of the film come during debates on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives - but it’s dry with a purpose. Set against the backdrop of the Civil War, Lincoln finds its rapture in the mundane passage of legislation that changes the course of American history.
The portions of the film that deviate from this legislative focus are its weakest, and keep the film from being the academy juggernaut it should be. Sally Field overacts in her role as Mary Todd Lincoln and her scenes come as unwelcomed distractions from the congressional action. Although Joseph Gordon-Levitt does a passable job as Lincoln’s eldest son Robert, his storyline could’ve - and probably should’ve - been removed entirely from the film with nothing lost. Lincoln is a very slow 150 minutes; any excess to the purposefully narrow story is glaringly out of place.
With James Spader as W.N. Bilbo came some of the most comedic scenes in Lincoln, which keep it from getting bogged down in legislative jargon and taking itself too seriously.
Tommy Lee Jones, too, is particularly present as congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens and provides some of the strongest flares of emotion in the film. He poignantly portrays the challenge legislators face of balancing what they believe is right and what they know is possible.
The film, however, belongs to Day-Lewis. He puts on an acting clinic as Lincoln, commanding every scene he’s in - he’s in most of them - with nothing but the gentle voice he puts on as the president, the voice that comes as almost a whisper throughout the film. Every time he speaks, the audience is put on edge.
Day-Lewis flawlessly delivers every anecdote and every parable, barely raising his voice. The few brief moments in which he does let loose are truly awe-inspiring.
Day-Lewis will win his third Oscar. Jones may very well win his second as well, and it’d be difficult to argue with. But the film as a whole comes up just short of its staggering expectations. Just enough of it is off that it keeps the film from its aspirations. It is not a masterpiece presentation of a key point in American history; rather, it’s just a very good presentation. And that, unfortunately, doesn’t cut it.