Review: Ensemble cast offers even more depth to ‘Lincoln’

Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. Or is that Abraham Lincoln playing Daniel Day-Lewis.
Sure seemed like it. (DreamWorks Pictures)

Lincoln (2 hours, 23 minutes, rated PG-13): I thought I recognized the face behind the beard, but I couldn’t quite place him. Then, a friend offered a tip on Facebook: “D-Day went from Faber College to the Cabinet.”

Yes! That’s him. That’s the guy who played D-Day in Animal House! Bruce McGill is playing Edwin Stanton, President Lincoln’s Secretary of War.

Who better to organize the Union’s military resources than party animal D-Day?

It was like that for the rest of the movie for me. Going into Lincoln, I’d heard the buzz about Daniel Day-Lewis and how he’d immersed himself in the role.

But all the talk about the Day-Lewis-to-Lincoln transformation had me thinking about the rest of the ensemble cast. These familiar faces made it difficult to focus on this fine Steven Spielberg epic.

When James Spader was trotted out as W.N. Bilbo, the colorful lobbyist who secured votes for Lincoln’s cause, all I could think of was Spader playing Robert California in TV’s The Office.

It was as if Robert California had stepped away as manager of the Scranton, Pa., office of Dunder-Miflin and was courting Civil War-era lawmakers.

And then the Flying Nun shows up playing Mary Todd Lincoln. My thoughts drifted toward Mary Todd floating over Gettysburg while wearing a heavily starched cornette, like Sister Bertrille.

Just as my attention came back to Lincoln, in walks Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens (with the world’s worst wig). And all I could think of was Tommy Lee playing Agent K in Men in Black.

And then, Kelly Leak, the troublemaking kid from The Bad News Bears, makes an appearance as Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America. Jackie Earle Haley has come a long way from aggravating Buttermaker and making time with Tatum O’Neal.

And speaking of recognizable child actors, there’s that kid from TV’s 3rd Rock From the Sun, who’s in every movie this year. It’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt and he’s playing Lincoln’s son, Robert.

Over there, it’s Mad Men‘s Lane Pryce (Jared Harris) playing Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (I was expecting Zach Galifianakis to play the part). And playing one of Bilbo’s lobbyist pals is Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) from O’ Brother Where Art Thou?

Even Daniel Day-Lewis’ past roles crept into my thinking. Seeing him in that stovepipe hat made me think of him as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting in Gangs of New York. I kept expecting Bill Cutting hurling an ax toward lawmakers who weren’t supporting the Thirteenth Amendment.

That’s what happens when you put together an ensemble cast. Your mind — or at least my mind — wanders.

THE PLOT: As the Civil War winds down, Abe is working the room, trying to get enough votes to pass legislation that will abolish slavery. He turns to his Cabinet and, more effectively, to a motley crew of lobbyists to persuade lawmakers for support. Through it all, you get an idea of Lincoln’s struggles as a leader and family man.

FOR KIDS? It’s a good history lesson, better than I got when I was a kid, certainly better than you’ll get from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. One strange moment, however: Bilbo, the lobbyist, utters an F-word, which seemed so out of place, like the plot had drifted into Big Lebowski territory. Also, Abe sure did say GD a lot. And don’t forget that the Civil War was going on, so expect to see some obligatory battlefield carnage and a wheelbarrow of sawed-off limbs.

BEST TIME FOR A BATHROOM BREAK: It’s a two-hour-plus movie, so at the halfway point, when Secretary of State William Seward (the guy who played Ira Lowenstein in A League of Their Own) says “in 10 days, we might pass the Thirteenth Amendment,” those are the safe words to go do your business or get a refill.

DATE MOVIE: Well, it’s a dream date if you’re both political science majors. I give Spielberg props on making legislative debate very exciting.

PAST REVIEWS: Skyfall | Lawless | The Possession | The Hunger Games | The Campaign | Total Recall | Up | Slumdog Millionaire | Star Trek | The Day the Earth Stood Still | The Wrestler | Inglourious Basterds | Dark Knight Arises | The Green Hornet | Watchmen | Avatar | The Social Network | Battle: LA | The Dark Knight | Savages | Piranha 3D | Rise of the Planet of the Apes | The Amazing Spider-Man


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