The box office returns for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter earlier this year showed that general audiences aren’t particularly interested in gleeful historical inaccuracy and narrative punchlines that fail to go beyond the title of the film. Now, Steven Spielberg has offered up a considerably more serious and reverent alternative to the story of Honest Abe with his newest film, simply titled Lincoln. But will his decidedly by-the-books approach appeal to viewers any more than the purposely schlocky, high-octane action version? Lincoln wisely does not fall into the typical biopic trap of covering the subject’s entire life. We meet Abraham Lincoln (played here by Daniel Day-Lewis) when he is already president, and the film largely focusses on the time he spent trying to get the 13th amendment passed, which would effectively abolish slavery. The film also shows us elements from his home life, including his son Robert’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) determination to leave for a life of honour in the military, and the mental strain it put on Abe Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field). In Lincoln’s professional life, there is a huge, revolving cast of characters. Watching the film is like playing an “I Spy” game of familiar faces whose names you may not know. Since these roles are played by such established actors (everyone from Jackie Earle Haley to John Hawkes to Hal Holbrook shows up for a few minutes) the performances have a gravitas that bit parts in many other films lack. However, we don’t spend enough time with these characters for them to really make the impact they could. Aside from Lincoln himself, none of the characters here is given much screen time. While we understand who they are in relation to Lincoln’s struggle and we can distinguish some of their qualities from the actors’ deft portrayals, we get very little insight into who they are, and that makes it difficult to become invested in any of them. The film as a whole tends to keep the viewer at an emotional remove. The narrative is largely composed of men sitting around and talking in rooms. That can be very effective; movies such as 12 Angry Men and The Social Network used a similar structure with emotionally complex results. However, Lincoln’s heavy focus on historical fact can make it feel as though the viewer is just being carried through the various steps of the amendment being passed. While it is an interesting historical event, the dramatic development was perhaps not strong enough to support a 150-minute movie about this. For history junkies, that meticulous attention to fact may be interesting enough to propel the film along, but it might be a tough slog for those looking for more dramatic tension and character development. The major element in this film that saves it from being too dull is Daniel Day-Lewis’ stirring performance as Lincoln. He exudes the calm and quiet determination that we expect to see in such a figure. He’s warm and occasionally quite funny, and makes for a completely compelling screen presence. And while Day-Lewis dials down the theatrics audiences have seen in films such as There Will Be Blood, he still very much has a larger-than-life aura about him here. That’s key to any portrayal of Lincoln, and Day-Lewis strikes the perfect balance in his performance. Lincoln tells an important story. And Spielberg is more than capable of constructing a good film. All of the parts are here, and the film moves along from point A to point B smoothly enough. This is not by any means a sub-par film, but aside from Day-Lewis’ masterful performance, viewers may find little to hold on to by the end. MMM

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