One thing I'll say for Steven Spielberg: the man can fill a theater. Even this afternoon, more than a week since Lincoln opened, the viewing I attended was quite nearly full. No surprise when you consider the long list of films on Spielberg's ceevee. Lots of big hits.
Nonetheless, I can't say I'm a big fan. Spielberg resorts to gratuitous heart-string pulling and tear-jerks more often than I find tasteful. Remember how we all cried when Elliot had to say goodbye to ET? Or how about that cloying scene with elderly Private Ryan on his knees at the graveyard in Normandy? We all cry at Spielberg flicks, yes? We all laugh on cue, too, yes? Remember all the cutesy one-liners in the Indiana Jones flicks and Jurassic Park?
Spielberg has a tendency to lay it on thick. That kind of emotional manipulation makes me feel sheepish. And feeling sheepish makes me resent being manipulated.
This rather lengthy digression is just to explain the reservations I had about going to Lincoln. But I'm happy to say that Lincoln, the film, eschews the worst of all that. It's a good film, well worth the acclaim it's receiving.
Start with the cast. Everyone expects excellence from Daniel Day-Lewis and he delivers. He allegedly relied on Doris Kearns Goodwin's highly-esteemed Lincoln biography, Team of Rivals in his preparation for the role. One wonders how much we can really know about Abraham Lincoln the man these 147 years since his death, but Day-Lewis' interpretation worked for me. His Abraham Lincoln is humble, wise, and charmingly American. Even for the versatile and enormously talented Daniel Day-Lewis, this could be a defining role.
For my money though, Sally Field delivered the best performance. Her Mary Todd Lincoln was a forceful, determined woman, sharp-witted, terrible, and never for a moment free of grief for her dead son. Those times during the flick when I cried (and, yes, I cried) were due to Field's stark performance.
Even besides those two, it is a star-studded cast. Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee from Pennsylvania with the outlandish belief that colored people are in every way equal to and as deserving of rights as white people. Hal Holbrook plays Preston Blair, the powerful journalist and backroom politician. James Spader was Mr. Bilbo, one of Secretary of State William Seward's favor-givers. David Strathairn played Seward.
Credit Spielberg for making an interesting and entertaining film about vote-getting. That's what most of this film is: political arm-twisting, backroom deals, and factional subterfuge. Even given the historical significance of this particular event, that doesn't ordinarily count as good entertainment.
But of course, the biggest draw of this film is that it is an opportunity for us, the people of the United States, to reexamine one of the men we most revere in our common heritage. Abraham Lincoln, the man, is a source of endless fascination and reverence. Lincoln, the film, brings that man to life for all to see. Any film that does that, and does it well, is sure to succeed.