Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field
No American president has a more iconic image than that of Abraham Lincoln, yet it is an image that filmmakers rarely try to bring to the screen (I’m choosing to ignore that vampire hunter thing). A man as admirable as Honest Abe deserved to have his story told to millions of filmgoers. Capturing our greatest President, and savior of the Union, is a dubious task but the two heavyweights attached to the project, Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis, reassured my mind. November 2012 got circled on my calendar since the earliest teaser trailers. I could not wait to head to the theater with my family of history buffs to see this American icon brought to the screen.
By limiting the scope of Lincoln to the President’s final four months, and specifically his administration's hard fight in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, Steven Spielberg starts off on the right foot. A tiresome epic that spanned Lincoln’s days as a young lawyer and upstart politician through the grueling Civil War and his assassination is a route many people may haven taken. Lincoln’s narrowed scope allows us to see all the great leadership qualities developed throughout his life in the last great battle of the Civil War; one fought on the legislative floor to ensure the permanence of the Emancipation Proclamation.
In the closing months of the war, there was no guarantee that a slave’s freedom would last once the South got readmitted. Lincoln had to lead a fight to change the Constitution and forever abolish slavery, and in this battle every shade of Lincoln is shown: the everyman, the listener, the thinker, the orator, the fighter, the risk-taker, the decision-maker, the compromiser, the husband, the father.
After its gruesome battle scene prologue, dialogue primarily drives Lincoln’s action. We quickly find ourselves in the midst of strategy meetings with the President’s cabinet, congressional deal making with lawmakers of varying political beliefs, diplomatic negotiations over peace, and heated debates on the House floor. The conversations of high-ranking officials makes up the bulk of Lincoln’s runtime, but it never feels like a stodgy history lesson.
Part of this is because Daniel Day-Lewis and the supporting actors bring so much passion to their words, no matter which side they align with. None more so than Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican who is the 13th Amendment’s most devoted supporter. Jones gets some of Lincoln’s juiciest lines while debating the pro-slavery Democrats on the House floor.* Whether by Stevens’ fiery digs in the Capitol or Lincoln’s softly spoken stories in the White House, it is a joy to listen to this dialogue. Lincoln, Stevens, and the rest were talented orators whose words elicit great emotional responses and surprising laughs exactly when needed. And every cast member bringing these words to life excels at the task.
Also, watching people talking is so exciting because the words still such have relevance today. While we no longer have debates over the merits of slavery (though racism still exists), the same vitriolic atmosphere in Congress that plagues our democracy is ever-present. It is a joy to watch Lincoln and his allies delicately but persistently work with their opponents to ensure the amendment’s passage. It took hard-liners who found room to compromise and a President willing to take huge political risks to fight for what he believed is right in order to forever abolish slavery. Those unwilling to waver will fail in the end; let’s hope the Tea Party Congresspersons who rode a wave of momentum into Washington in 2010 watch Lincoln... and take notes. We’ve always lived in a partisan country filled with ugly politics, but with good leaders representing us, government does have the capacity to do great things.
One major ingredient in Lincoln is gaining a lot of attention, and deservedly so. Daniel Day-Lewis continues to build a legend in his own field with another mesmerizing performance (it’s early but he might want to make room for a third Best Actor Oscar). The shoes of Abraham Lincoln are massive and he fills them beautifully. Upon first glance, every expectation we have of Lincoln is met with his familiar beard, top hat and towering presence. But he does so much than add motion to the famous photographs we see in history books. He brings a new Lincoln to the screen; granted, it is a Lincoln that matches historical accounts. It’s a performance that makes Lincoln both a human being and the legend. He does not lead with a booming, authoritative voice but with soft and calming words that can pack a punch when needed. In Lincoln’s contemplative silences, Day-Lewis shows Lincoln’s ever-turning gears in his eyes. As either an icon of goodness and dignity like Lincoln or a symbol of evil greed like Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood), he’s not only convincing but scene stealing. I can’t wait to re-watch both these films, and then work my way through the rest of his filmography; he’s one of the best.
Beyond Tommy Lee Jones and Daniel Day-Lewis, the cast from top-to-bottom is excellent. Sally Field is given her biggest role in years and shows that Mary Todd Lincoln is more than the “crazy woman” history often paints her as. Big names and recognizable faces fill in the secondary roles and each have their moments to shine. James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson are especially memorable as three less-than-reputable political “fixers” to lead Lincoln’s covert bribery efforts (no one ever said passing amendments was pretty work).
History buffs, film buffs, and buffs of neither need to seek out Lincoln. Beyond its depiction of an American hero and its story of an important moment in American history, the film itself is an impressive accomplishment. I’ve gone into depth on the great direction, script, and acting, but there is much more. The film acts a highly entertaining political drama with a final vote that delivers great drama in the lead up to one critical vote, a fascinating character study that brings new life to man we thought we already knew well, and a period piece that is fantastic to look at with its darkness and grime of 19th century D.C. Steven Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis lived up to the hype and made a film worthy of the name Lincoln.
Mark it 8.
*Before modern day Republicans pat themselves on the back while watching Lincoln, I hope they ask how hard they’d fight against the status quo for the sake of human rights today... inequalities in America based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation are still rampant. I know Republicans love bringing up Lincoln’s name in stump speeches and at conventions; I just hope they remember his principles too while they say those words.