Steven Spielberg’s intimate look at the 16th President of the United States, "Lincoln" is a passionate and oftentimes compelling look at the last four months of his life. It is a time when he had to deal not only with trying to end the Civil War, but also in fighting to abolish slavery forever. Brilliantly played by Daniel Day Lewis, Abraham Lincoln becomes a fascinating human being; not just a powerful leader, but also a humorous storyteller, a heartfelt father, and a man at odds with his own power.
Written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner ("Angels in America"), the script is a rich and complex work that navigates not only Lincoln’s fight to collect votes to pass the 13th Amendment, but also his personal relationships with his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field), eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath). It also navigates his dealings with close political figures, first and foremost William H. Seward (David Strathairn) who was his Secretary of State. A former adversary, the two formed a close bond as allies and became indispensable during Lincoln’s fight to end the war and abolish slavery.
Also taking a spotlight is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a "radical" Republican Pennsylvania representative who joined Lincoln in the push to end slavery. A cantankerous, and challenging man, his passion helped change the country but not without having his detractors. One of those was Mary Todd Lincoln who he tried to have imprisoned for her spending habits on White House renovations. A fiery scene between these two is one of the film’s highlights.
Surrounding these characters is an enormous cast that all take on roles involved in the 13th Amendment debate. They include New York Congressman Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) whose siding with the Confederacy brought out a man clearly happy to be in the spotlight and Lincoln’s "gang of three." Played by John Hawkes, James Spader, and Tim Blake Nelson these men were sent out to lobby for votes to pass the amendment and become an important part of the process of getting the bill passed. They also become the film’s few bits of comic relief.
The plot here is thin as this is simply a retelling of Lincoln’s push to end slavery. But what it does show is a man at odds. Someone who had to manipulate those around him to fight for something that he not only believed in, but that he knew would change the country for generations to come. He was a forward thinker that used his humanity and courage to make his point and endear him to a nation. A gentle hero, Day-Lewis plays him as something of a fragile man in body, but strong in spirit. It is in these scenes that the film comes alive. Whether dealing with an ailing wife, talking to both white and black soldiers in the middle of a war zone, or coming to odds with his oldest son who he won’t allow to see his vulnerability, the film is at its best when it gets personal.
The problem is with a script that is so dense with the politics of the day, the appeal of the film won’t be far-reaching. There are times when the film can become confusing unless you know the inner-workings of the American political system, and after a while all the suits, beards, and blowhards grow tiresome. This is such a talky film that it almost begs to be a stage production - telling since it’s written by a playwright.
Also, when Kushner turned in his first draft of his screenplay it was 500 pages long. Knowing it was too epic to shoot, Spielberg came up with the idea of condensing the story into just the last four months of Lincoln’s life - when his fight to change the country was at its height. By doing this, we get a snapshot look at the man that Lincoln was. But unless you know about his life, the history of the man isn’t here. I found myself wondering how he got his start, how he grew to be this amazing leader and loving man. I wanted to know more about his life. In this I was reminded of Mel Gibson’s "Passion of the Christ." By focusing on just the last 12 hours of Jesus’ life, we see a man being punished for his teachings and beliefs, but we don’t see those teachings and beliefs. Gibson assumed we all knew what Jesus stood for, but coming into a story at the finale, we lose emotional impact. With "Lincoln" I wanted to feel more, but without seeing Lincoln’s personal journey to become President and to see how he evolved into the man he was, the story was a bit dry. Instead of a big screen motion picture experience, I felt like I was watching a beautifully shot and brilliantly acted HBO film.
That said there is so much to appreciate here, it’s hard to dismiss the film. Filmed by legendary Janusz Kaminski, the film is gorgeously shot in muted tones, at times looking like crisp black and white. Spielberg creates shots that are stunning in their beauty, using light and shadow to create spellbinding iconic shots. (One scene of Mary Todd and Lincoln in their deceased son’s bedroom is particularly striking.)
As for the acting, you have to look no further than this film to receive a master class. It’s nice to see Spielberg really focus on the actors and allow them room to breathe without the restrictions of his filmmaking style. Every actor is kinetic, even if the words they utter are dry and talky. The most charged scenes are the ones with Field and Day-Lewis. While I was fearful Field would be too recognizable as the actress she is, she surprised me with how she easily fell into her character, even losing some of her trademark lilts to create a gripping portrait of a woman who was deeply scarred. Tommy Lee Jones and David Straitharn are also very strong in their roles and their scenes also bristle with energy.
But the fact is, Daniel Day-Lewis gives another Oscar-worthy performance. While I feel sometimes he is an actor who is always "acting" and sometimes falls a bit too deeply into his roles, here he literally morphs into Lincoln. It’s not just the makeup that transforms him, but the subtle way he moves, the affectations of his voice, and the ways he looks (or doesn’t) at the other characters. It’s one of the few times I really felt like I was looking at the actual historical figure rather than an actor in heavy make-up "playing" a famous person. In this, I fell in love with the Lincoln. While I might not have fallen for the film as a whole, it made me want to know more about the man, especially when what the man stood for is something spookily similar to the politics of today. In that it’s an important movie and message.