It’s hard not to see Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln as the Oscar film that didn’t. The movie was nominated for twelve academy awards, but it only went home with two (though one was for Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in the titular role). It was trumped by Argo, and though comparing the two is sort of like equating apples and turnips, Lincoln is the better film, and perhaps was underrated for being another in a long line of great Spielberg film. Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a ton of great character actors co-star in this story of the passage of the 13th amendment. Our review of the Blu-ray follows after the jump.
As the film starts, Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is in turmoil. The Civil War is almost over, the North has won, but he knows that if he takes the South back without banning slavery, the whole war might have been for naught. With his recent second election, he gets his staff (with David Strathairn’s William Seward his right hand man) to find him some Democrats in the house who have lost the recent election to defect and vote with the Republican party. His first line of attack is assembling three men (James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson) to offer government jobs to those who change their position, while he must also get his own party in line.
On one side of the Republican party is Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), who wants Lincoln to make every effort to end the war first, while Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) is a hardline abolitionist who has spent his life trying to end slavery, and wants to make no compromises. Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd (Field) isn’t crazy about his pursuit of this, while his son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) wishes to join the Union army so he can do his part. With the war drawing to a quick close, Lincoln and company have a very small window of opportunity to get this amendment passed, and they’ll need flakes (like Walton Goggins) and men of principle (Michael Stuhlbarg) to join their side.
As history tells us, the 13th amendment was ratified, so it points out the great skill in Spielberg’s direction and Tony Kushner’s screenplay that the film is so gripping. But as America is currently faced with an obstructionist Republican party, and lived through Obama’s first term goals of getting new health care laws passed (on top of the Supreme Court currently weighing on same sex marriages), the film is very much of the moment, and points out the struggles America has always had making important decisions. The film suggests that even our most respected and revered president faced an uphill climb on a decision that nowadays would seem to be common sense. But such are radical changes.
Part of Spielberg’s strategy with such a large ensemble is to load the cast with familiar faces, so you know where and who you’re talking to throughout the movie. The cast also features Jackie Earl Haley, Jared Harris, David Costabile (from Breaking Bad and The Wire), Bruce McGill and even more recognizable faces throughout, and though the film could seem like it’s cameo heavy, Spielberg learned from The Longest Day how useful it is to have slightly familiar actors when you’re dealing with a film of this scope.
But at the center of it all is Daniel Day-Lewis’ brilliant performance. Taking away the fact that he’s English and by no means as tall, he inhabits the role – he makes one of the most lauded people in American history a living, breathing person. Even if he didn’t give the best performance of the year (I’m drawn to Joaquin Phoenix’s work in The Master), that he is able to shake memories of previous versions – from Henry Fonda to that guy in that Star Trek episode – speaks volumes to how great his work is here.
What’s also great about the movie is that this is one of the best written movies in Spielberg’s career. Rarely has he worked with a writer with the stature of Tony Kushner, but the two complement each other perfectly. Spielberg may not be playing in his comfort zone by filming a lot of conversations (he jokingly refers to it as him doing a Sidney Lumet film), but he finds a way to make his camera interesting even in conversations done around a table. It’s a mature work that’s reverential but never boring. And it’s either a great film, or one of the better films done by a great filmmaker.
Dreamworks Blu-ray is available in two versions. One comes with the film on Blu-ray and a DVD copy, the second is a four disc set that also includes a bonus disc, and a digital copy (It’s also worth mentioning that the packaging for the four disc is set up in a two-disc case, with the each side stacking two discs on top of each other. I hate this style of packaging; it seems designed to cause scratches.). For those budget-minded, and/or don’t care about the digital copy, the two disc set should be fine. The film is presented in widescreen (2.35:1) and in 7.1 DTS-HDMA. The presentation of the film is immaculate; this is a demo disc if there ever was one. Picture and sound quality are reference level, it’s just a gorgeous looking and sounding movie. The first disc also comes with two featurettes “The Journey to Lincoln” (9 min.) and “A Historic Tapestry: Richmond, Virgina” (4 min.). The first offers a general look at how the film came together, while the second highlights the location work, and feature comments from all of the cast and crew (including Spielberg, Day-Lewis, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and more).
For those who are interested in the four disc set, the supplements there are four more featurettes. “In the Company of Character” (10 min.) gives the film’s large ensemble their due, while “Crafting the Past” (11 min.) gets into the production and costume design. “Living with Lincoln” (27 min.) is the main walkthrough the shooting process, and Spielberg offers lots of choice nuggets here about how the shooting went down, and the challenges of the material, while “In Lincoln’s Footsteps” (17 min.) talks with editor Michael Kahn, composer John Williams, sound designer Ben Burtt and more to cover the wrap of production and the post-production process. This comes from Spielberg’s longtime supplement director Laurent Bouzereau, and if the supplements seem modest, they are unquestionably thoughtful, and it’s fun to see Daniel Day-Lewis talk about the film, as he often comes across as a bit of a recluse.