Spielberg has created a sublimely triumphant masterpiece, while Daniel Day-Lewis brings us an utterly unparalleled performance of calm bravery and intimate charm
Having recently been named the most portrayed American President in screen history, Steven Spielberg has sought to breathe life into an adaptation of the 16th President's life, bringing us the intelligent and moving Lincoln. The film zooms in on one particular era of Lincoln's presidency, specifically the time around the end of the Civil War, and his push to get the 13th amendment signed into law. Spielberg originally bought the rights to the film back in 2001, while Liam Neeson was originally cast as honest Abe. Yet due to difficulties the film suffered delays, with Neeson eventually leaving the project in 2010, citing that he was too old for the part.
Thankfully, Daniel Day-Lewis was cast as the leading man, in an astonishing performance that is a shoe in for the Best Actor award at the Oscars later this February. Sally Field plays his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, while Tommy Lee Jones plays the republican radical and supporter of full racial equality, Thaddeus Stevens. The film also stars Joseph Gordon Levitt as Lincoln's son, David Strathairn plays Secretary of State William H. Seward, Lee Pace as the fiery democrat Fernando Wood among others in an excellent supporting cast.
As mentioned above, the films focuses on Lincoln's struggle to pass the 13th Amendment, which would finally abolish slavery in America, this is set to the backdrop of the American Civil War, as the North and South wage war against each other. Lincoln is concerned that his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation act would be ill favoured by the courts once the war is over, and with the end of the war in sight, Lincoln wants to push through the legislation to ensure freed slaves don't become re-enslaved. But, pushing through the act is not that easy, with the more conservative Republicans unwilling to give their support as well as most Democrats outright opposing it. Lincoln strikes a deal with conservative Republican Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), Blair will support the 13th amendment as long as he can start to negotiate a peace treaty with the crumbling Confederacy and bring an end to the Civil War, Lincoln reluctantly agrees.
This is not the only stumbling block though, as Secretary of State William Seward (Strathairn) begins to work on gaining the necessary Democratic votes to push through the legislation, he gathers lobbyists William Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Nelson) to pursue moderate Democrats who may be persuaded into a yes vote. As well as this, Lincoln has family issues, with his unwillingness to allow his son, Robert (Gordon-Levitt) join the army affect their relationship, as well as problems with his wife Mary (Sally Field) over the death of one of their sons.
Lincoln's push for the amendent is also hindered by Thaddeus Stevens' (Tommy Lee Jones) support for full racial equality, a radical view at the time. Stevens eventually moderates his views to persuade teetering Democrats, and the act is eventually passed, with the war ending soon after. The film ends with Lincoln's assassination, and a flashback to his inspirational second inaugural address.
Spielberg's direction of Lincoln is superb, in terms of vision and style it is everything you expect, from the beautiful lighting to the brilliant and accurate sets and costumes, this war torn 19th century America is vividly re created in Lincoln. Spielberg's adaptation is surprisingly neither over emotive or overly patriotic, unlike so many of his other films Spielberg has been able to leave some sentimentality out of it and create a film which doesn't make the 'American spirit' or 'American dream' its main theme, a brilliantly refreshing surprise for such a film steeped in history and a President who is so engrained in the American psyche. Spielberg never once signposts or makes anything obvious, he assumes the audience's intelligence and the film is all the better for it.
The film is also wonderfully well paced, partly down to such a brilliant script by Munich screenwriter Tony Kushner. His use of language is expertly used, to re create the political forums of the era with precise American 19th century dialogue takes extreme skill, and Kushner does this superbly, offering a subtly intelligent yet understandable script.
Spielberg also manages to get the best out of his actors, in what is an incredibly complete performance from Daniel Day-Lewis. You simply cannot imagine another actor in the role after watching such an intense character study. Day-Lewis gets everything right to the tee, from the beard, to the voice, to the masterful oration to even his posture, Day-Lewis really knows how to pick his films. He plays Lincoln with utmost charm, hilarity, bravery, a sense of justice and humility, very much like the man himself. He not only brings an acute sense of simplicity to the role, but he manages to delve into Lincoln's complex character, whether its his grave guilt and despair over the deaths of two of his sons, or his sometimes exasperated relationship with his wife Mary, Day-Lewis is simply unmatched in this role and is surely the favourite for the Best Actor Oscar this February.
Sally Field is brilliant as Lincoln's wife, Mary Todd. Again a very well deserved Oscar nomination for her. As Lincoln's only true confidant in the movie, she also has to bear the weight of Lincoln's absenteeism, to face criticisms of her husband's presidency unfairly aimed at her, as well as feeling the unfair weight of the guilt of the death of their sons. Her performance of a damaged, often disturbed yet resilient and truly loving first lady is the most emotive of all portrayals on screen. Yet she can certainly show a comic side as well as hold her own with the towering male politicians of the day, particularly in a scene at a White House reception where Thaddeus Stevens and other radicals confront her, Field's Mary is strong, smart and witty here, and you see why Lincoln so admires her.
If it weren't for Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones would have almost certainly stole the show with this supporting role as Republican radical Thaddeus Stevens. It's a delightfully under rated, yet fiery and spirited performance from Lee-Jones who consistently shows that he is still one the best actors in Hollywood. Despite his fiery temper and almost youthful and ideologic political opinions, Lee Jones also manages to portray Stevens as an elderly, sometimes broken man. You see Stevens' moral struggle to finally adopt and moderate his views in order to pass the 13th amendment. He is also handed some brilliant zingers from writer Tony Kushner, delivering them against his democrat rivals in embarrassingly brutal style.
Other note worthy performances include Lee Pace's Fernando Wood in a spiteful portrayal. Probably one of the most least liked characters in the film with his confederate sympathies and distasteful racial opinions, Pace delivers his lines like a prejudice preacher, not stopping once to listen to others. David Strathairn's loyal yet embattled Secretary of State bring another great supporting role while Walton Goggins as the flip flopping yet nervously hilarious Wells A. Hutchins completes an all round excellent cast.
Lincoln can become dull at times, given its strongly 19th century heavy dialogue and long running time, it's understandable that the film can come across as more of a Friday afternoon history lesson as opposed to historic epic. But the film is so much more than that, it's a surprisingly intimate and personal story of one of the greatest democratic leaders of all time. It's much more of a political thriller, focusing on one of America's most embittered periods as opposed to a biopic. Some may have expected action and battlefield scenes given the Civil War era, but momentos speeches and beautiful oration are this film's explosions. With a stirring and Oscar deserving performance from Day-Lewis, Lincoln is a must see. 4.5/5