Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is one of the best films the director has ever done and I was quite surprised how compelling and phenomenal the movie turned out to be. Most historians rate Abraham Lincoln as America’s greatest president. Honest Abe as his nickname, there is probably not many characters in American history that summon the mythos like the 16th president from a log cabin in Illinois.
“Lincoln” as a movie destroys any pretense of a larger than life Lincoln. This is the human Lincoln who is quiet, reflective and even tortured in some senses by the loss of his son Willie three years before. Historically, Lincoln suffered bouts of clinical depression and the audience can see that a little in the film as the president privately works to keep his family together and strives to use his political chips to pass the 13th Amendment.
Wisely, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner choose not to tell a sweeping birth to the grave biopic but focus on the last 4 months of Lincoln’s life. He has been re-elected and the civil war rages on. The only war scene we see is at the very beginning, a solemn and brutal reminder of how divided the country was at that time.
Lincoln declares to his team of rivals (the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin is a partial basis for the script) that he wants to pass the 13th Amendment by the end of the month of January to, as he puts it, abolish slavery forever. Some of his cabinet members try and talk him out of pursuing this course. They believe that a peace should first be made between north and south and that they should work to that end. Lincoln knows that abolishing slavery would not get done if a peace deal was brokered. The south would never agree.
Lincoln’s team sets out to influence the House of Representatives to get a vote on the amendment. Here we see President Lincoln’s shrewd political skill. He is not above buying votes, offering jobs, and pork barrel spending to win people to his side. Politics is a crafty game and Lincoln was a masterful player.
The president is aided in his quest by Thaddeus Stevens, played by a boisterous Tommy Lee Jones, who was one of the most powerful abolitionists in the House and a radical Republican. Stevens offers his own threats by arm-twisting various members to “encourage” them to vote for the amendment. He has some secrets of his own that are unveiled later.
The cast of the movie are all top-notch: Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln is the woman still feeling the grieving burden of losing her son and is concerned about the president’s legacy. David Strathairn is Secretary of State William Seward who helps guide Lincoln through the perilous passage of the 13th Amendment. Joseph Gordon Leavitt, in a really solid performance, plays Robert Lincoln who wants to join the Union fight. His dad is opposed as to not bring another loss on the family. Robert Lincoln refuses the family privilege. The cast is rounded out by John Hawkes, James Spader and Jackie Earle Haley.
And what can possibly be said about the greatest actor in the world, Daniel Day Lewis. He is a lock for another Oscar nomination for best actor. He has won twice even though he has only been in 6 movies in the last 15 years. Lewis embodies Lincoln using a higher pitched voice which contemporaries of Lincoln say that he had. Lewis’ Lincoln is witty and sometimes funny but often with sad eyes. He stalks around the White House like a haunted ghost with a specific walk as Lincoln. He stares off his office, lonely, contemplating the weight of his decisions.
Imagine trying to stay a course during the most violent and bloody conflict America has ever faced. Than one even goes against the wishes of advisers which involves the brokering of a peace deal because one was convinced of the long game, abolishing slavery forever.
This is a monumental work by one of the best and most important figures in cinema history. Here is a film that comes when our country is divided again but thankfully, not as divided as in 1865. Spielberg has shown that he can do the fun popcorn thrillers, arresting science fiction pictures, and genuinely inspiring historical dramas. This is probably one of his best films and not only that, one of the very best of the year.