Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a triumph that takes one of the towering figures of American history, reveals the man underneath the myth, and yet still leaves viewers in awe of its subject. We’re all familiar with Abraham Lincoln the icon — master speaker, Great Emancipator, the savior of the union who was assassinated for his efforts — but to simply tick off his accomplishments (or showcase them in a standard bio-pic) would be to ignore the underlying humanity. Off the pedestal, Lincoln was henpecked by his wife, racked with grief over the loss of a child, and beset on all sides by foes sharpening their political knives. Was it any wonder that old Honest Abe made 50 look like the new 95?
Adapted by playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America) from one small part of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s acclaimed biography Team of Rivals, Lincoln owes its success to three people: Kushner, whose literate and lyrical script turns the dusty past into thrilling theater; director Spielberg, who brings to life 1860s America with stunning effectiveness; and especially Daniel Day-Lewis, who delivers one of the greatest performances I have ever seen on the screen. Day-Lewis’ method-acting process is the stuff of legend (he stays in character between takes; Spielberg reportedly called him “Mr. President” on set, etc.), but there is no arguing with success. Though no one knows what Lincoln was really like, I feel fine saying that Lewis has defined the 16th president for generations to come.
Lincoln concerns itself only with the last few months of Abe’s life, though this short window encompasses the passage of the 13th Amendment by a downright hostile House of Representatives, the end of the Civil War, and Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater. The bulk of the film’s 149 minutes is spent in the White House and on the floor of the House, as the nation’s political class does battle over amending the Constitution to outlaw slavery. While this may sound like some 1860s version of C-SPAN, Spielberg puts to work all of his skills as a filmmaker and storyteller, molding the material into grand entertainment. Far from a cinematic homework assignment, Lincoln is actually fun to watch.
Working with longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg constructs a gritty and believable take on Civil War-era America. From the mud-caked streets to the authentic-looking sets and costumes inhabited by characters draped in blankets and huddling for warmth, every frame of Lincoln drips with the atmosphere of the era.
It also helps Spielberg greatly to have Daniel Day-Lewis holding court as Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln in my mind’s eye had been greatly informed by Disney’s The Hall of Presidents, but that animatronic imposter has been wiped away by the living, breathing Lincoln Day-Lewis has created here.
A talented ensemble of actors sinks their teeth into parts both large and small, as if aware that they were working on something special. Among them, Sally Field imbues Mary Todd Lincoln (a woman teetering on the brink throughout) with a heartbreaking mix of strength and sadness; Tommy Lee Jones is at once fierce and frail as Republican House leader Thaddeus Stevens, a man with a deep personal conviction on the issue of slavery; David Strathairn as Lincoln’s loyal but wounded (when left out of the loop) Secretary of State William Seward; and a very funny (yes, I said funny) James Spader as a New York lobbyist hired by Seward to bribe reluctant Democrats to vote the president’s way.
It’s impossible to watch Lincoln and not find parallels to modern life, and it’s readily apparent that Spielberg meant his film as more than a history lesson. We do, after all, live in another era of American division, when the nation looks to a bitterly divided Washington to solve problems instead of making things worse. Though it would be far too simplistic to equate Lincoln with Obama, or the obstructing House of the 1860s with the one of today, there are lessons to be gleaned by our current political actors. Perhaps some of them will be inspired to take a principled stand outside of their chosen party line in the interest of moving the country forward. That’s never an easy choice (as Lincoln ably illustrates), but it’s one the nation demands. Only the greatest of men step forward — men like Abraham Lincoln.