My glib, sarcastic response to Lincoln is "How much suspense can you really get out of whether or not congress voted for the 13th Amendment?" I had that thought before and after the film, but it was honestly the furthest thing from my mind while watching Lincoln. This is a film not about the ends but the means and in that it succeeds. Stephen Spielberg takes Tony Kushner's screenplay and manages to pull off a very entertaining film about congressional roadblocks and backroom deals. It is not a beautiful or even particularly stylish film--save the unexpected dream sequence in the first few minutes--but it gets the job done. It's competently made and amplifies the drama of congressional debate just enough to be interesting without slipping into melodrama.
The acting is all fine. These are not the most dynamic characters ever committed to film but the cast makes you care for them anyway. Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln is folksy and charming in a believable way. Tommy Lee Jones nails the perseverance and withering wit of Thaddeus Stephens. Sally Field has the flashiest role as Mary Todd Lincoln, but her performance is honest enough to avoid "Hollywood crazy" hysterics when she slips into depression or anger.
Even with the crack about suspense when it comes to well-worn history, Spielberg does manage to build quite a bit of it in the film. Kushner gives him some nice arcs to play with--Robert Lincoln wanting to join the war against his parents interests, Thaddeus Stephens fighting with his own party over how far equality should go--that help with this. The biggest strength, though, is the backroom dealings of Lincoln's unofficial assistants.
A trio of hired guns come in to pick out which lame duck Democrats are the most likely to vote in favor of the 13th Amendment with a little encouragement. They are hired to guarantee 20 more votes for the Amendment out of 50 or so potential candidates. The suspense actually kicks in when the numbers just don't grow fast enough. You know it will pass in the end, but somehow the minutia of how the Republicans force the passage is just fascinating. Somehow, against my best efforts, I, too, began to nervously count the votes during the climax.
If forcing the audience to invest in a story that has an outcome taught to every public school student in America isn't solid filmmaking, I don't know what is. Lincoln is not the most thrilling film of 2012 or even the most inventive, but it is perhaps the most focused release of the year.
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