All of us learn about the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, while in elementary school and more in U.S History class. We know about the emancipation proclamation and the 13th Amendment and the Civil War, but few us know the man beyond the significant events. Nor do we know a good deal about his personal relationships and the effort he took, at the risk of continued war, to get his amendment passed. Academy Award winners Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field offer incredible performances as Abraham and Mary Todd-Lincoln. Tony Kushner’s perfectly penned script and the film’s impressive costuming and set design, with Steven Spielberg behind the camera, make for an imposing combination.
I contend the title for the film should be The 13th Amendment and not Lincoln. The tale spends the majority of the time dealing with that important event and less so with Lincoln the man. Yes, we are privy to his relationships with Mary and other people in his inner circle, but the plot focuses more on the events leading up to, the length the president goes to, and on the results of the vote concerning the 13th Amendment. It was a tumultuous time for the country, divided and at war, and Lincoln waged his own personal battle to get his amendment passed when all odds played against him. In the last few months before his death, still dealing with the death of one son, another son going off to war and a wife on the brink, Lincoln, his loyal staff and hired men sent out to turn the vote, risk extending the war in an effort to forever seal what he began with his emancipation proclamation.
In truth, I cannot say anything about Day-Lewis to add to his long, long list of positive praise. His depiction of Lincoln is remarkably realistic and beyond reproach. He is Lincoln from head to toe and all in between. I’ve read that in addition to his exceptional height and slight weight, Lincoln had a soft, relatively high-pitched voice and a fairly placid demeanor. With Day-Lewis’ talent, costuming and makeup artistry, only minute glimmers of the actor beneath the character ever show. Field, I learned in an interview I saw on television, fought for the role of Mary Todd-Lincoln, a complex woman fraught with anxiety and sadness. Thankfully, Spielberg brought her on. She plays Mary with passion and heart, holding her own in politics and showing her vulnerability with equal fervor.
Tommy Lee Jones, who plays Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most powerful members of the House during Lincoln’s reign, does so with tenacity and pluck. And he is not alone, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln), John Hawkes (Oklahoma Senator Robert Latham), David Strathairn (Secretary of State William Seward), James Spader (W.N Bilbo a political operative) and a host of other exceptional actors create a pragmatic view of history – one worthy of history classrooms. While I did find some aspects of the film a bit verbose (dare I say long-winded even), being so many years out of any history class, I rather enjoyed the civics lesson.
Spielberg, in my opinion plays it pretty safe with Lincoln, not focusing on a GREAT moment in history, but rather on a lesser recognized plot with in our history – though the outcome is certainly well-known. Here we get more of the backstage goings on, the inner workings of Lincoln and his team as they toil against time and war to pass the 13th Amendment. Spielberg even shows the president’s more daring and at time witty sides, garnering a few chuckles and gasps. Apparently Lincoln mastered detailed storytelling, or so he thought, as a means to divert or distract attention, garnering a great deal if eye-rolling and impatience form his staff and contemporaries. Day-Lewis nicely fleshes out this subtly humorous side of Lincoln, offering a more human, less political side of the man, who I feel sure could bark with the best. He knew his mind and showed his determination when he opted to delay the end of the war to allow time for the amendment to pass (and to work up enough support for it).
The film’s imagery is stunning. I like the Spielberg of Lincoln far more than the man who directed the over-blown Warhorse, which I found syrupy and insanely exaggerated, albeit beautiful to view. His attention to detail in all aspects of Lincoln helped me look past the more droning bits – that and his amazing cast. Lincoln isn’t my favorite of the year, but it rises above most to the top ten for sure. Day-Lewis most certainly deserves accolades, but so do others in the film. I see this (or parts of it) playing, soon, in classrooms all over the nation.
Final Grade: A-