The first thing audiences need to know about the latest Steven Spielberg film is that Lincoln is more legislative drama than Great Emancipator biopic. Yet, through the performance of Daniel Day Lewis as the 16th president, by the closing credits the audience has a keen understanding of who this man was beyond the monument and the history books.
Lincoln is based on the astounding book A Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. But Emmy winner Tony Kushner (Angels in America) has written a script that only takes a slice of time from Goodwin’s Lincoln account to focus on the passage of the 13th Amendment.
With the Civil War raging and Lincoln recently reelected to a second term, the president decides to use his election-earned political capital. Lincoln wants to push his Republican party to launch an effort to ban slavery permanently in the House of Representatives where amendments are first approved.
The film follows what would prove to be the final months of Lincoln's life. But, beyond the expertly crafted political maneuvering, Spielberg and Kushner also remove the veil of history to illustrate the iconic man’s life as a husband and father. Extremely close with his youngest son Tad (an adorable and chaos-causing Gulliver McGrath), Lincoln also had a strained relationship with his adult son Robert (a too little seen Joseph Gordon Levitt).
And then there’s his marriage to Mary (Sally Field) -- often written about, but rarely captured as eloquently as Spielberg has in his film. One immediately gets the sense that the president’s most trusted ally and adviser was his wife. Yes, she was strained with loss as the couple had lost two children before our film even starts and that fact is emotionally illustrated by Field astoundingly in every scene she inhabits. Field’s verbal rant towards Thaddeus Stevens (a mesmerizing Tommy Lee Jones) during one stand-out moment in the film is the stuff that warrants Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress.
And Jones… well, don't get us started! Honestly, the entire extended cast excels as each player knows their part. Jones has never been so subtly explosive and manipulative. Oscar nominee John Hawkes joins James Spader as a group of political “agents” (who we would later call lobbyists) who work to help get Lincoln the votes he needs to pass the amendment. Besides the jaw-dropping work of Day Lewis, Spader steals the movie. It is an uncanny performance for the ages.
But the star of the film is Day Lewis and he has never been so astute in a performance that is powerful, present and persuasive. You see, through the film in some eloquent monologues, the actor presents Lincoln’s reasoning behind the immediacy of passing the amendment. The nation went to war over slavery, but if the war is resolved with the North winning, the South could go on allowing the practice to continue. While members of his party are calling for peace and the South’s surrender, Lincoln must continue to fight the war while simultaneously appearing to be conducting discussions about ending it and getting the slavery abolishment amendment through Congress. It’s a razor thin line the president walks and it is at the heart of the mastery of the Lincoln story.
Some may have hoped for more of a biopic of the legendary leader. But with Spielberg’s Lincoln, the months witnessed of this legendary life are more than enough to give the audience insight into a president the likes of which we will never see again. It is through those moments of passing the amendment, winning the war and then fighting for peace that the greatness of Abraham Lincoln was at its height. And that… is Lincoln.
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