Expectations may have been almost unfairly lofty for a biopic directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th President of the United States. It's thus to the film's great credit that it ultimately treads its own path to become a worthy depiction of both a celebrated man and a time when a fairly young nation was still experiencing a potentially defeating crisis. So much of the potential for this movie exists in the kind of bold inevitabilities which it happily eschews. A film such as Spielberg's Lincoln can threaten to feel like the sort of thing one either has already seen prior to watching or need not see at all in order to nonetheless feel like one already has. Refreshingly, this never becomes the case while actually viewing it, and I can't help but think that stands as a hardly insignificant feat.
We sort of know going in that Day-Lewis will embody Abraham Lincoln with his usual conviction. If we're not quite prepared for just how immersed he seems to have become and how basically inseparable the two men will potentially live on to generations of viewers then maybe it's simply a consequence of that sort of embarrassing "milkshake" speech he delivered a mere five years ago in P.T. Anderson's universally lauded There Will Be Blood. Strangely enough, Day-Lewis seems better suited at becoming an existing character rather than creating one. In Lincoln, he's found the perfect vessel upon which to insert himself. The simple man prone to telling stories but who endures as a larger than life figure has perhaps never felt so authentic and human on film as he does here. Day-Lewis embodies at least the version of who we want Lincoln to have been - folksy, tortured, wise and, perhaps above all else, determined. The movie Lincoln actually involves far more figures and events than just its title character but it would have gotten hardly anywhere without the right actor playing him. This performance by Daniel Day-Lewis is so well-modulated as to allow the remainder of the picture to flourish absent any hesitation.
The film's central point upon which everything else revolves is the battle in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution during what would be the final stages of the Civil War. This proposal to abolish slavery caused a heated debate that seemed largely divided along party lines. Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens (played by a wickedly good Tommy Lee Jones) were tasked with leading the charge in favor of the amendment as Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) worked behind the scenes to help secure the final votes needed for adoption. These machinations on display, reminiscent of some of the great political films like Otto Preminger's Advise & Consent, provide much of the entertainment and overall momentum in Lincoln. The James Spader-led trio assigned to find these last votes in support of the amendment at times feels like the welcomed comedic relief one might expect from a stage play. But the sideways effect is also one of more serious realization. The means by which this amendment was ultimately secured, however justifiable by the ends, were pretty well soiled by impropriety.
Lincoln's greatness is so ingrained in American history that it's not surprising to see only very mild reference to his unprecedented expansion of presidential power. In the movie, as in the usual narrative found within textbooks, Lincoln is shown as having to test the limits of his office in order to unite a nation in tatters. The results were perhaps a best case scenario sort of thing whereas a worst case scenario might be something like what we went through here in the 21st century with the previous administration. The degree to which the Lincoln seen in Spielberg's film manipulates Congress in order to get his amendment through could be argued to approach or flat out embody abuse of power. The movie chooses to largely sidestep any such issue and instead portrays the president as cleverly doing whatever it takes to accomplish his goals. This Lincoln is the country lawyer intent on charming his audience while others do the dirty work.
Steven Spielberg is not exactly known for challenging audiences, either intentionally or by virtue of the material chosen. He's done it on occasion, to be sure, but it's really more of the safe, rewarding style which tends to ultimately plague even his best work. For Lincoln, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (who also adapted Munich) did the admirable thing of making a very large, capital letters movie feel more like a small and intimate affair. It's a two and a half hour film that doesn't really play like an epic (and perhaps that's why it never gained any real traction in the Best Picture race). That said, the signature nagging misstep that seems to recur throughout Spielberg's career is again present in that we're forced to deal with the president's death, something that occurs two and a half months after the House passes the 13th Amendment. It's certainly an important footnote to the events seen but the assassination seems out of place here because this really isn't a biographical portrait of Lincoln in any traditional sense. Its inclusion, even offscreen, feels like another of Spielberg's patented (and, in my mind, misguided) attempts to stir up emotion in his cinema, and it plays as entirely unnecessary.
Those expectations mentioned above may have played a trick in reverse psychology on me - resulting in a proceed with caution type of attitude from someone generally unmoved by so much of what Lincoln seemed to be on paper. But I was happily proven wrong. Lincoln is imperfect yet nonetheless endures as a great film, and one which will hold up beautifully over time and multiple viewings. Spielberg's long-gestating achievement could have easily, without argument, taken home Oscars for Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actor. It almost seems to have somehow been penalized for those very expectations which I found it to have surpassed. Rewarding the presumed frontrunner which, through no fault of its own, actually delivered the goods may have seemed like a joyless inevitability. Regardless of awards and perception, Lincoln stands as a highly engrossing and deeply sincere take on a segment in history with basically immeasurable importance. Spielberg and Kushner kind of conned the audience by delivering an impassioned take on political maneuvering disguised as a presidential biopic, but I think that's part of why I found myself loving the movie as much as I did.
The release being reviewed here is the Buena Vista-distributed 4-disc Combo Pack containing a pair of Blu-rays, a DVD of the film, and a Digital Copy. The dual-layered main disc is encoded for all regions.
Image quality is nigh-on flawless. The picture is unencumbered by digital imperfections or unwanted manipulations. This rather dark and painterly presentation (owing to the cinematography by Janusz Kaminski) is entirely representative of what I saw at the cinema. So while contrast, particularly anything resembling bright colors, is rarely utilized, the texture found within those dimly lit scenes goes a long way toward creating a specific mood for the viewer. The wide 2.40:1 aspect ratio chosen has been respected here. On the whole, I can't help but be impressed by the overall detail and clarity available in this high definition transfer. It looks marvelous.
Audio is pretty impressive too. There's a 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio track as a default that may not quite have been necessary but nonetheless distributes the opening battle scenes as well as it does the smaller background noises that occur elsewhere in the film. Dialogue emerges with complete recognition and crispness. John Williams' score is what it is but suffers nothing in the transition to home viewing. There are optional subtitles available in English for the hearing impaired, French and Spanish. There are also dubbed audio tracks included in French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital. Plus an English Descriptive Video Services 2.0 Dolby Digital mix is available. The DVD trades the 7.1 DTS HD MA for an English 5.1 DD track but otherwise shares the same audio options as the Blu.
An entire second disc is needed to accomodate the extra features included in this set, though the main BD, the one containing the movie, actually has a couple of supplements too. On disc one, "The Journey to Lincoln" (9:24) tells how this particular section in the president's life was chosen to be the subject of the movie. Also found here is "A History Tapestry: Richmond, Virginia" (4:00), which is about the transformation the crew did on the Virginia state capital for the production.
That additional Blu-ray disc contains just over an hour of bonus material and begins with "In the Company of Character" (10:23 ), a piece matching many from the large cast of actors with the real-life people they played. Spielberg is heard saying something to the effect of him not asking Daniel Day-Lewis anything about his famously involved process of getting into character, and this featurette basically continues that precedent by not shedding any real light on it. Next is a "Crafting the Past" (10:43) featurette on the production and costume design. The rigorous attention to detail shown here is really amazing and leaves the viewer with a sense of awe. "Living with Lincoln" (27:04), the longest of the supplements, is probably the closest thing here to a general making-of documentary. Lastly, "In Lincoln's Footsteps" (16:35) concludes the parade of supplemental featurettes and focuses on the film's editing, its music and the sound design before talking a bit about the production's end.
Of these, the DVD contains just "The Journey to Lincoln".