lincolncoverGrade:  A-
Entire family:  No
2012, 150 min., Color
Rated PG-13 for intense war violence, carnage, and brief strong language
DreamWorks SKG
Aspect ratio:  2.40:1
Featured audio:  DTS-HD MA 7.1
Bonus features:  C-
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy


Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is both a sprawling character study and a behind-the-scenes story of how the United States came to abolish slavery. Rated PG-13, the film contains really just three scenes that are too graphic for younger children:  the opening Civil War battle sequence, which is extremely violent; a scene mid-point where Robert Lincoln refuses to go inside a hospital with his father, but witnesses something far worse than wounded soldiers outside; and a scene near the end when Lincoln rides a horse through a battlefield filled with dead soldiers.

If you shield young ones from those scenes, and maybe plug their ears for the punch line of a story involving a picture of George Washington hanging in a bathroom, they’d be able to watch Lincoln—though I can’t imagine any of them lasting very long. For one thing, Lincoln is two and a half hours long, and that’s enough to challenge the attention span of even the most dedicated young history buff. Lincoln is also a slow-moving dialogue- and character-driven film that’s as leisurely paced and deliberate as our 16th President reportedly was in everything. Meanwhile, the parts that adults will find most interesting—the backdoor politicking, bribery, threats, and coercion that were used to gain a voting majority—will be too complicated for young children to grasp.

But children, like the adults, may be fascinated by the historical details that Spielberg includes, for Lincoln oozes authenticity. Then there’s Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning performance. The hair and make-up people don’t get enough credit for the transformation, but I absolutely love Day-Lewis’s interpretation.

Biographers and historians have found documents that tell us Lincoln was scholarly but unpretentious, a “rustic” who loved a good story and dirty joke as much as the next person, someone who was deliberate in his speaking, and who had an uncommonly high-pitched voice. In the last department, Day-Lewis only manages to climb into the same register as folksy character actor Walter Brennan, but he nails everything else. And besides, go too high and you’d have Lincoln on helium. But Spielberg’s Lincoln gives us the fullest portrait of the man on the five dollar bill that Hollywood has produced.

lincolnscreenLincoln’s second wife, Mary (Sally Field), was institutionalized at one point, and Lincoln himself suffered from what today would be called depression. Those emotional landscapes are supported by dark or dimly lit interior shots, and the cinematography incorporates plenty of smoke and haze in the exteriors as well, to emphasize the war and the dark period that the nation was enduring.

Of the many actors who turn in fine performances, the ones who stand out are Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the President’s son, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, and James Spader as a shady political backroom dealer.

“Do you think we choose the times into which we are born?” Lincoln asks. “Or do we fit the times we are born into?”

Lincoln was fascinated by philosophical inquiry and Spielberg’s film captures that as much as any other aspect. Pay attention as you watch, because there are plenty more lessons here than the story of how the 13th Amendment was adopted. But watch this when you’re feeling alert and refreshed—otherwise, the pacing and sheer length will be too much, even for older children and adults. Neither one of our children made it all the way through this film.