"Lincoln," with a cast of acting titans like Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones, arrives in theaters Friday with many predicting big things come Oscar night. But does Steven Spielberg's biopic of the Great Emancipator live up to the early hype?
Based on initial reviews, it seems like Spielberg and company have delivered. Critics are raving about Day-Lewis' performance and crediting the film with taking a historical figure who is cloaked in myth and making him relatable and sympathetically human. Instead of uncoiling a birth-through-death chronology of Father Abraham, "Lincoln" narrows its gaze to a few key months in 1865 when the president was trying to simultaneously end the Civil War and pass an amendment abolishing slavery.
The film, which will expand nationally next week after opening in limited release this weekend, scored a bullish 92 percent "fresh" rating on critics aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
In TheWrap, Alonso Duralde lavished praise on the film and its literate script from Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner for finding the man behind the monument. His one bone of contention was not with the film itself but with its gauzy ad campaign.
"The dreadful trailer makes 'Lincoln' look like an awful collection of Spielbergian excesses, including swelling John Williams moments (admittedly, there are one or two) and Janusz Kaminski’s honey-baked lighting (OK, granted, it appears, but not too often), not to mention Tommy Lee Jones’ terrible wig (which actually winds up being organic in his memorable turn as Thaddeus Stevens)," Duralde writes. "Don’t let the marketing campaign keep you from seeing one of the best American movies this year, and Spielberg’s finest work in decades."
Perhaps no critical enthusiasm could match that of A.O. Scott. In a glowing review in The New York Times, Scott sounds the trumpets for Spielberg's epic, urging parents to bundle their children into the local multiplex to see history unfurl across the screen.
"Some of the ambition of 'Lincoln' seems to be to answer the omissions and distortions of the cinematic past, represented by great films like D. W. Griffith’s 'Birth of a Nation,' which glorified the violent disenfranchisement of African-Americans as a heroic second founding, and 'Gone With the Wind,' with its romantic view of the old South," Scott writes. "To paraphrase what Woodrow Wilson said of Griffith, Mr. Spielberg writes history with lightning."
For Kenneth Turan, the greatness of the film lies in its understatedness. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, he lauded Spielberg for abandoning his more bombastic impulses to focus on the interior life of an American president.
"There is nothing bravura or overly emotional about Spielberg's direction here, but the impeccable filmmaking is no less impressive for being quiet and to the point," Turan writes. "The director delivers selfless, pulled-back satisfactions: he's there in service of the script and the acting, to enhance the spoken word rather than burnish his reputation."
It's an "A," declares Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman, who hails the film for getting its hands dirty while depicting the sausage-making of politics.
"The Lincoln we see here is that rare movie creature, a heroic thinker," he writes. "He has the serpentine intellect of a master lawyer, infused with a poet's passion. 'Lincoln' brilliantly dramatizes the delicacy of politics, along with the raw brutality of it."
In New York magazine, David Edelstein savored the film, but admitted that a few moments could have gone down more smoothly. In particular, he said the film's initial scenes suffered from musty dialogue and some of the political wrangling it depicted was difficult to follow. Ultimately, however, he credited the picture with finding a fresh take on a president whose legacy has been dissected and debated for generations.
"By the time the movie ends, you don’t feel as if you know Lincoln—few, in his own time, claimed to know him," Edelstein writes. "But you feel as if you know what it was like to be in his presence. And so an icon (it’s a measure of how promiscuously that word is thrown around that it seems inadequate for one of history’s truly iconic figures) has become a man—and, startlingly, within reach."
There were a few critics, of course, who were not ready to endorse "Lincoln." In the Newark Star-Ledger, Stephen Whitty slammed the movie for choking on its own self-serious and mocked it for too many scenes of intense debates held by men with copious facial hair.
"So if you've been sitting around wondering, 'Gee, when is Spielberg ever going to make another 'Amistad?' ' here's your answer," Whitty writes.
Apparently, Whitty would prefer another "Jaws."