Synopsis: In the final four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life and presidency, the full measure of the man-his passion and his humanity-came to bear on his defining battle: to plot a forward path for a shattered nation, against overwhelming odds and extreme public and personal pressure. Steven Spielbergâs Lincoln provides an intimate immersion into the American leader’s most perilous and revealing moments, at a time when the dark shadow of slavery lifts and a country torn by war must be made whole.
Release Date: November 9, 2012 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Drama, Biography
There have been only a handful of great United States Presidents; those whose lasting impression and work have shaped the Nation and influenced generations. Abraham Lincoln could very well be, depending on popular and singular opinion, the greatest President the United States has ever had. His profound legacy created because of one very difficult, momentous, and incredibly moving act performed in the final days of his Presidency–the passing of the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery in the United States of America–during the bloodiest and most devastating war the country has ever been a part of, The Civil War. The story of how the 13th Amendment came to pass is not a simple story to tell, nor is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s life. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln focuses on the final four months of Lincoln’s presidency and the fight to pass the 13th Amendment while trying to negotiate peace for his divided Nation.
Lincoln is not a biographical telling of Abraham Lincoln’s (Daniel Day Lewis) life, as the title would suggest. It is a mere window into a tumultuous time in his presidency, and Mr. Lincoln stands more as a grandeur figure in the background of a world-changing moment in history than as the forefront of screenwriter Tony Kushner’s story. His existence fuels the plot, and his indirect hand in manipulating the votes necessary to pass the amendment a prime focus of the film. His home life, with wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), who, at this point in history, had gone rather mad with grief over her son’s death, is a key element in showing the hardships the man endures outside of politics but it all passes as happenstance filler.
As does his time spent with his young son Tad Lincoln (Gulliver McGrath) and oldest Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Including Tad makes more sense, as Lincoln is known for being a very attentive father, letting his sons play at his feet while working, but Robert’s storyline is pointless, except to show the fear Mary and Lincoln possess over losing another child; and that is shown in great detail during many other scenes between the two or on their own. Watching Lincoln’s home life does not provide a great deal to the story because this is not Abraham Lincoln’s story, it is larger than the man.
The real thrill in Lincoln comes in the form of watching the government body at work, and the warring sides of Democrats vs. Republicans, man vs. man, on his ideals, his will for change or to stop it from occurring, and the undeniable chaos that ensued by the simple idea that a “Negro” could be considered free to a “White” man–women are of course, an entirely different story and a humorous moment in the film reflects on the insane notion that a woman may one day have the right to vote like a man. Lincoln has a hand in everything that goes on, paying direct attention to the matter but being fully aware that he cannot intervene on the matter of changing Representative’s votes. This is where things get very interesting, and an almost political thriller emerges out of Lincoln.
A band of men, what we would today refer to as political lobbyists, are sent at the bequest of Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Henry Seward (David Strathairn), to persuade those against the amendment to change their vote–bribes, promises of high-ranking positions, and downright begging at times occurs, all with hilarity. The three men leading this mischief and engrossing look into dirty politics are actors John Hawkes, James Spader, and Tim Blake Nelson.
The confined story of Lincoln, taking place in minimal locations and without the epic-sized sets a drama centered within the Civil War would presumably have is staged like a play with small sets, confined spaces, and contained action. With boisterous performances that outshine the intricate production design or gorgeous cinematography by longtime Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski. Lincoln is all about the story, the history, and the technical aspects of creating the late-1800s world are quietly overlooked.
Titling the movie Lincoln may not have been the best choice, as it seems more fitting to be called “The 13th Amendment,” and less misleading as to exactly how the plot will play out. This is Lincoln’s story, but it is a story told from an entirely different perspective than that of a biography. As a look into political politics during The Civil War it is fascinating, making politics surprisingly interesting–a feat difficult to do especially when the men are wearing bad wigs; Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens the worst by far, and his character admits to such.
Lincoln, even with the personal influxes worked into the story and small snippets of a portrait of a man–including an ending that runs far too long, not stopping at a glorious moment that paints Lincoln in the light he should be remembered in order to side with the expected and otherwise pointless attempt to establish the familial bond typical in a Spielberg film that leads only to an infuriating response–is more about his influence, his strong presence and fortitude, not the man himself. Lincoln is a movie about politics and one of the greatest moments in United States history as shown through the mechanizations of Abraham Lincoln’s political leadership.
Daniel Day Lewis is known for being an intense method actor. The rumor mill swirls with tales about his on-set actions when remaining in character and the ease he has at making fellow actors feel intimidated. All of this should be well understood and applauded because Daniel Day Lewis is an amazingly talented actor, and words cannot do him justice, especially when it comes to his performance as Abraham Lincoln.
The opening shot of the film shows Lewis seated on crates, in the rain, in front of two “Negro” soldiers who are having a very frank conversation with the President. You do not immediately see his face, and then the light catches his profile, he lifts his head, and suddenly, as if caught in a dream that has transported you back to 1865, you are seeing Abraham Lincoln come to life. Daniel Day Lewis is the Abraham Lincoln we have come to know, to perceive to be the 16th President of the United States of America–from his face to the mannerisms he possesses, and even his wiry hair.
Lewis even manages to perfect the gait Lincoln was said to have, and the way he tilted his head down frequently. Then the voice chimes in, not the deep voice you recall from the Lincoln theatre at Disneyland but a more high-pitched yet soft-spoken voice that historians have come to conclude is how he spoke. Then there is the humor, the jokes he told, and the stories he was well-known reciting–and most were long, with a laugh at the end mingled with a good moral. Lincoln was a charismatic man who also suffered from a deep melancholy his entire life, and bouts of depression. All of these characteristics are shown in the film under different and often times similar circumstances, and Daniel Day Lewis is absolute perfection during each and every one.
The excitement of seeing Daniel Day Lewis transform himself into Abraham Lincoln is worth the price of admission alone to see Lincoln; it is an unforgettable moment the first time the light catches his face, and the last time you see him in full view walking down the White House Hallway, putting on his top hat, to leave for the theatre. Award talk was abuzz when the first picture was released of Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, without ever seeing his actual performance in the film. A picture tells a thousand words, and Daniel Day Lewis is surely not to be overlooked come award time, or that would be a great travesty in film history.
Daniel Day Lewis is not the only impressionable performance in Lincoln. There is plenty of characters to keep track of, and many names will fall along the wayside but what they stood for, and what they said or did will remain with you. The most notable for this occurrence is the Representative from Kentucky, played by David Costabile, as the man who gives one of the greatest political speeches of all time (in my opinion) about the consequences of freeing the slaves by passing the amendment.
The sound judgment he displays, the political repercussions and economic distress that will surely arise, are difficult words to hear when the quality of human life is at stake but you respect and understand his argument. It is one of the most moving moments in the film, whether you agree or disagree with him, and the truth he displays as to the long road of trials passing the amendment will bring, and it elevates the greatness of the fight to pass the amendment to newer heights for the third act of the film.
Tim Blake Nelson gives a fine performance as Richard Schell, a man torn between voting for what he believes in or voting to literally save his life. Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward is given an excellent portrayal by David Strathaim, albeit more theatrical than filmic in his somewhat over-the-top performance, but it works well against Lewis’ calm yet forceful state. Tommy Lee Jones takes the reigns as Thaddeus Stevens, a true believer in freedom for all men and who has been fighting for it his entire career. He has a burden to bear with the 13th Amendment as it is not perfect in that it does not give equal rights to all men–Jones’ performance dominates the screen more than once and he is, above all else, a politician to the end.
There is only one weak link in the casting of Lincoln, the role of Mary Todd Lincoln going to Sally Field. She feels out of place the entire time in the role, grasping at the melodrama she is given and fumbling with the emotional ups and downs of her character. Mrs. Lincoln is not an especially likable character and her incessant whining grates on the nerves. There is but one scene between her and Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens where Field gets it right, giving him the necessary vinegar laced tongue with a smile on her face. The rest of the time Sally Field is no more than Sally Field in late-1800s costumes, looking miserable and overreaching, and completely out of reach without any chemistry with Daniel Day Lewis.
The list of fine performances in Lincoln could go on and on, but it cannot. The important thing to know is that nearly every actor gives an amazing performance, full of emotion and determination, be them a politician or civilian; like Mrs. Lincoln’s “Negro” maid Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) who provides a look inside the plight of the “Negro” woman, and man, and has a very thought-provoking conversation with Lincoln himself one evening. Lincoln is an actor’s dream come true thanks to the script from Tony Kushner that makes sure everyone has their moment to shine and be appreciated by the viewer who is watching their performance with eager eyes.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Steven Spielberg
- Screenwriter(s): Tony Kushner
- Cast: Daniel Day Lewis (Abraham Lincoln), Sally Field (Mary Todd Lincoln), David Strathaim (William Seward), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Robert Lincoln), James Spader (Bilbo), Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair), Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), John Hawkes (Robert Latham), Jackie Earle Haley (Alexander Stephens), Tim Blake Nelson (Richard Schell)
- Country Of Origin: USA