Rather than attempting total biography or even a complete summation of Abraham Lincoln's presidency, Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln” takes the full measure of the man by concentrating on the last few months of his life, as the 16th president of the United States fought to abolish slavery and end the Civil War.
The film succeeds grandly with Daniel Day-Lewis' beautifully rendered character study at its core, but it is also a trenchant study of the nation's character.
Screenwriter Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) based the script on Doris Kearns Goodwin's “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” and the bulk of its action takes place in January 1865 as Lincoln attempts to cobble together enough votes to pass the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It could not be done merely on the strength of Republican abolitionist votes and could not stick solely by presidential order in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. He had to pull together enough Democratic votes not just to make it pass, but to make it bipartisan and lasting.
Spielberg and Kushner smartly circumscribe their timeline to just a few profoundly consequential weeks, mainly because Lincoln's mastery of politics and his personal sense of justice were never more acute, necessary and on-display than in those cold, muddy January days in Washington, D.C.
In a round-the-clock campaign to bring Congress to the right vote while there was just enough political will, Lincoln pushed his “Radical Republican” congressional allies such as U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and lobbyists W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tulsa-born Tim Blake Nelson) to make it happen. As such, “Lincoln” is an unlikely and exhilarating creation: an exciting, moving and occasionally funny movie about political process.
Over the course of 300-plus cinematic depictions since the dawn of film, the character of Abraham Lincoln evolved into a mythically solemn man with a deep voice to match his convictions, but Day-Lewis' Lincoln hews closer to the historical truth. In “Lincoln,” the president's voice is reedy and his tone familial and collegiate. He is a man possessing a deep reservoir of anecdotes for every political occasion and enthusiasm for deploying them for persuasive power, a running joke in the film and a frequent annoyance for Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill).
Day-Lewis' resonant portrayal of Lincoln serves as the obvious centerpiece, but Spielberg assembled a cast of supporting players that reads like a hall of fame for modern character actors, including Jones, Spader, Hawkes, Nelson, McGill, Chickasha-born Lee Pace, David Costabile (“Breaking Bad”), Jared Harris (“Mad Men”), David Strathairn, Walton Goggins, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael Stuhlbarg and Hal Holbrook.
It is a male-dominated story, but Sally Field's performance as Mary Todd Lincoln is a model of exposed nerves and sadness as she continues to mourn the 1862 death of son Willie, tries in vain to keep oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from enlisting in the Union Army and battles her bipolar disorder as Washington society whispers around her.
While there is some expectation that a film about Lincoln must also be a film about the Civil War, Spielberg takes the uncommon approach of having the war operate as a subtext and framing device, and it works.
Lincoln knew that his best hope of passing the amendment was to do so before the war ended, and while war imagery constitutes a slim fraction of the film's running time, it is always there in gathering creases of Lincoln's countenance. Spielberg, Kushner and Day-Lewis zero in on the president's deft balance of moral responsibility, political courage and skill at political gamesmanship in “Lincoln,” and the result is a fresh look at a man most people think they already know.
— George Lang
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Jackie Earle Haley, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
(An intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language)
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