As the Civil War continues to rage, America’s president struggles with continuing carnage on the battlefield and as he fights with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate the slaves. (IMDB)
Writers: Tony Kushner (Screenplay), Doris Kearns Goodwin (Book)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and David Strathairn
Runtime/Rating: 149 Minutes/ PG-13
Popcorn Score: Large Popcorn
All of the preconceived notions that I had about President Abraham Lincoln are now blown away after seeing Spielberg’s biopic about the 16th president. But now that I think about it, those notions weren’t really based on anything that I ever read or heard about the president so I suppose they were somewhat destined to be inaccurate! I guess I always assumed that since he was the president of the United States and a rather successful one, that he would have been a powerful, assertive and demanding man. The portrayal that we are given in Lincoln shows him to be none of those things but rather a soft spoken, patient and understanding man who listened rather than spoke and when it was his turn he spoke through parable with a soft tone rather than with direct and forceful commands. And I understand that it is a quite accurate portrayal with the filmmakers calling upon experts and historians that know as much as possible about the former president. I was blown away, I often thought throughout the movie as his cabinet was back talking and raising their voices toward him that the man was going to snap, but he very rarely did, he would just listen and then take his moment when it was time. Daniel Day Lewis is perhaps more brilliant than usual in this quite restrained performance.
Lincoln is different than most biopics in a sense that it doesn’t try to deliver a biography on Lincoln’s whole life. The course of the movie covers just a few months leading up to the Presidents death and really only one major “battle” that the President faced throughout his life. The abolishment of slavery with the passing of the 13th amendment. This legislative motion is what gives the movie it plot, stakes and ultimately its prize.
As the movie begins Abraham Lincoln has just won re-election and he makes it his short term goal to amend the constitution to abolish slavery with a 2/3 vote in the House of Representatives. Lincoln’s republicans control the house (along with the senate that passed the amendment the previous year) but do not have the 2/3rd majority that they need to pass the amendment. He is advised by his staff that they will need to sway roughly 20 votes in order for the amendment to pass so he decides that they will go after the few “lame duck” congressmen that will be out of jobs when the next term starts. This launches what is the main focus of the film. Three government cronies (James Spader and John Hawkes and Tim Blake) are sent out with much comedic relief to “persuade” these teetering and vulnerable democrats to vote “yes” on the amendment. The lucky ones, if they agree are promised everything from tax collector positions to Postmasters in their towns upon their dismissal from congress; some are less fortunate and strong-armed into their vote.
Lincoln knew how important this amendment would be for the country, he was a man who wholeheartedly felt Slavery was immoral and knew that if the United States Constitution abolished slavery, it would never be overturned. In the midst of all of this is, of course, the Civil War. It is a losing battle for the confederacy by this point but what would be the 4th spring of fighting is quickly approaching and with hundreds of thousands of lives already lost over his watch, Lincoln is aggressive in his efforts to diplomatically end the war as soon as possible. The passing of the amendment would also be a devastating political and financial blow to the south.
I couldn’t help but compare the way that Lincoln played out to a sports movie, following the team all the way from the preseason to the championship game at the end. The way screenwriter Tony Kushner (Munich) writes, and Spielberg directs the action toward the pinnacle is reminiscent of a basketball game montage where all you see is the ball flying through the hoop at each end of court with flashes of the scoreboard in between. It creates a certain level of excitement that is difficult to bring out when simply portraying backroom political discussions and a vote in the House of Representatives.
The film is shot in epic Steven Spielberg fashion with swooping elevated cameras and extras upon extras. It has a very historical look to its finish. I think that is all good but at times I was pulled out of the story because of those epic camera movements and gratuitous townsfolk and congressional house scenes because I found them to be, for a lack of a better word, a bit cheesy. I guess it’s the Spielberg that directed Warhorse and Indian Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull coming out rather than the one who directed Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List.
The supporting character that is most focused on is Thaddeus Stevens, a powerful veteran of the House who is the strongest supporter of the amendment. Played by Tommy Lee Jones this loud mouthed, cocky but aging man had fought his whole career to see this pass for professional and personal reasons. As far as Lincoln’s family is concerned, his stubborn son Robert Lincoln who longed to fight for the Union despite his privileged status is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) is shown in her undesirable years as a woman potentially going mad from the stress of being the First Lady and the loss of a son in the war. I feel that both of these characters would have been able to shine if offered more opportunity but the movie is already 2 ½ hours the way it is.
History is portrayed through out that 2 ½ hours and I found it to be not only an entertaining time but an educational time as well. More than anything this movie shows off the already well noted talents of Daniel Day Lewis who embodies the assassinated president, which in the end is discussed but not shown. I would predict that at the very minimum his performance and those of the makeup artists for transforming his look into Lincoln will be awarded Academy Award nominations in just a few months. I think it deserves those and potentially more.