This film’s biggest problem is the title; it’s wrong.
It is a period of civil war. The sixteenth President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), is under pressure to end the American conflict. His desire to pass a 13th amendment to the US Constitution and abolish slavery for all time can’t be won if the Southern states rejoin the union and block the vote. Even the threat of the amendment brings the South to the bargaining table with a willingness to end the war, but if the amendment doesn’t pass now, it might never come up again. If it passes in spite of the war raging on, it could restore freedom to the galaxy….
Steven Spielberg, only you could be so bold. Let’s be honest: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter had more to do with the life of Lincoln than this. That said, however, it is an intriguing by-the-numbers account (however dramatized) of the political machine in motion, specifically in the maneuvers required to get an amendment passed in the wake of compromise. Anyone familiar with the musical 1776 knows that the slavery issue has been batted about since the birth of the United States (or, you know, if you read history books or whatnot), but it was tabled then to ensure the South would band together with the Northern states to throw Britain out of the colonies. If you thought the politics and lobbying to get legislation passed is tough these days, get a load of how it was done in 1864.
The standout performance isn’t Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln (despite every attempt to convince the Golden Globes and Oscars otherwise). Two standout performances make this film worth watching: James Spader as W.N. Bilbo and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. Spader is unrecognizable in character, but his performance is electrifying, stealing almost every moment he’s on-screen (who knew, right?) Not to be outdone, Tommy Lee Jones delivers both snark and thought-provoking speeches to his peers that both offend and convince. Compared to Daniel Day-Lewis’s weird-voiced Lincoln and the unhistoric whining of Sally Field’s Mary Todd, these performances are a wonderful, hopeful contrast to the every Lincoln scene and especially when Mrs. and Mrs. Lincoln start fighting (whatever happened to “the great romance of their age?”)
Pushing this film as merely “Lincoln” is something of an injustice to the man himself, as if audiences wouldn’t have any interest in the actual story of the film. It’s long but purposeful, the kind of film that will probably be mandatory viewing in high school history classes after it hits shelves. With so many facts and characters to get through to make the film’s point, the emphasis on overportraying Lincoln’s role in the political drama is a distraction. This is the same thing that undermined the film Milk when it couldn’t stop waiving a rainbow flag long enough to tell audiences more about the man than his sexual orientation. In a more modern context, this is what also underwhelmed the film Flight in spite of hiring Denzel Washington to shore up a flimsy, predictable, and exploitive script. It’s a bit sad when an alternative history horror film like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter hits the highlights of a great man more than a film that bears his name.
(a two skull recommendation out of four)