Edited by Dorrin Gingerich
In Lincoln, our 16th president Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) plans, politics, and maneuvers to pass the Thirteenth Amendment and ban slavery for the rest of US history. The title seems to suggest a biopic, but the film, rather than focusing on Lincoln’s whole life, centers on the Amendment, only briefly touching on the aftermath of the War and the death of Lincoln. Lincoln realizes that the Civil War may present a unique opportunity to shape the Constitution in the absence of the rebelling states, but the Amendment’s passage requires the votes of several Northern Democrats who are unlikely to favor it if they believe the end of the War nears. In other words, Lincoln is convinced that there can be no lasting peace if the United States remains half-slave, half-free, but some rival politicians want to end the war without addressing slavery. Thus, in order to push the Amendment through, Lincoln must not only rely on his oratory and his political allies, he must also carefully and creatively filter information about the state of the War as it concludes, knowing that wartime may be the Amendment’s best and only chance to pass.
What Worked - To save space in describing a complex film, the synopsis above only includes Lincoln’s actions, but in the film, Lincoln delegates much of his monumental task to his cabinet, lead by Secretary of State William H. Seward (David Strathairn). In some of the film’s most interesting scenes, the two men bluntly discuss the measures necessary to secure the votes, and Lincoln even (unofficially) authorizes offers of certain government jobs to Democrats willing to vote for the Amendment.
On the opposite extreme, the Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) must agree to downplay his radical support for Black equality in order to avoid alienating more conservative congressmen. His character really comes alive in the noisy, chaotic atmosphere of the House floor, where tempers run high and the representatives freely cheer, sneer, and trade insults during their deliberations. Playing Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones gives one of the film’s best and most eloquent performances, a joy to watch.
Indeed, every actor in this film performs remarkably well. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Lincoln’s oldest son, and Sally Field plays his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Field portrays Mary Todd as sympathetic, yet depressed, exasperated, and frightened by turns (true to historical record). Her performance adds emotional drama to Lincoln’s life outside the political sphere, showing the wartime strain on his more intimate relationships. Lincoln’s scenes with his family oscillate between heartwarming and vexing, and both his wife and his son have their own interesting stories, which play out alongside the film’s central conflict.
And finally, Daniel Day-Lewis absolutely inhabits the role of Lincoln, a part which won him another (well-deserved) Academy Award for Best Actor. Day-Lewis captures Lincoln’s charm perfectly, prone to digress on tangents at the most infuriating moments with a twinkle in his eye, mostly reserved, yet able to let loose with quivering emotion when the moment calls for it. Modeling his performance after accounts of Lincoln’s mannerisms, Day-Lewis mimics Lincoln highish voice, yet retains his charisma effortlessly. At any given point during the film, I felt like I saw not Daniel Day-Lewis, but Lincoln onscreen.
While the performances garner the most attention, the cinematography, dialogue, character development, costumes, and historical accuracy all deserve praise as well. Obviously a huge undertaking, the film succeeds on almost every front.
What Didn't Work - Oddly, I felt a bit put-off by some of the film’s more self-consciously dramatic moments. In one of the early scenes, two black soldiers recite the Gettysburg Address by memory after meeting Lincoln face-to-face. It was a bit much. Whenever the soundtrack swells too loudly, I am reminded that this is a Spielberg picture, with all that entails. That sounds like a minor nitpick… because it is.
Overall - This is a truly great movie; I would call it one of the few real instant classics, a must-see on its subject matter alone, and extremely well-made besides.
A Quote from the Movie -
Thaddeus Stevens -“The greatest measure of the 19th century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”