Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, Lee Pace
Rated: PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language
Abraham Lincoln is one of our most beloved presidents, and an incredibly complex figure. Steven Spielberg’s new film wisely focuses only on the last four months of the man’s life, and still has more than enough material to fill the film’s two and a half hours. This is a powerhouse of a movie, and it manages to be at once a historical piece, a commentary on modern politics, Oscar bait, and a fascinating study of people living in impossibly difficult times.
“Lincoln” centers on the president’s attempt to push the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (the one prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude) through the House of Representatives. His party, the Republicans, control the House, but don’t have the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the amendment. House Democrats are so hostile to the President and to the idea of freeing the slaves permanently that getting enough of them to vote for its passage seems impossible. To further complicate matters, the President pitched the amendment as a way to end the war, but the Confederates are beginning to make quiet overtures for peace.
Daniel Day-Lewis brings the same intensity and craft to the part of Abraham Lincoln as he does to all his performances, but wisely refrains from chewing the scenery the way he has in his more recent films. His Lincoln is a man with a deep streak of sadness and self-doubt who simultaneously recognizes that he must lead with confidence if he’s to keep the country from disintegrating entirely. He’s easygoing with the average citizen and the lower-ranking members of the White House staff, telling rambling jokes and the occasional bawdy story — it’s easy to see why he was so beloved. With his cabinet and fellow politicians, he has a spine of steel and an edge to suit it when necessary. He is at once just a man and a truly great man.
His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), has a great deal to cope with as First Lady to a wartime president and mother to a son of fighting age during the most bloody war America had ever seen. The film underplays her situation, choosing instead to focus on her husband, which is both unfortunate and understandable. Field’s performance is spectacular, and she holds the screen against Day-Lewis even when both their characters have their intensity and emotion dialed to eleven. It’s an amazing performance to watch.
The supporting cast is packed with familiar faces and, from James Spader to Joseph Gordon-Levitt. While the familiar faces can seem at times distracting, reminding us that we’re watching a movie, it’s easy to sink back into the story and be drawn along. Even knowing how things turn out, I was on the edge of my seat during the final vote on the Amendment.
Perhaps most importantly, very few of the characters are straight-up caricatures. There are those who support the Amendment, but not on the basis of wanting the slaves to be free, and those who want freedom for the slaves, but are firmly against the Amendment. The film makes it easy to see why people criticized Lincoln for being a tyrant (the man himself admits in one scene to have taken powers that it’s easy to argue he didn’t actually have), and to understand some of the fears people had around outlawing slavery entirely.
For once, Spielberg has created a truly intriguing, involving, complicated film rather than a simple, straightforward marionette show where the strings are attached to your emotions. These characters are not all cardboard cutouts. The vast majority of them are complicated, difficult people dealing with a complicated, difficult time. “Lincoln” is a film worth seeing, whether for the moving political drama, the history, or the portrait of a fascinating person.