Director Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln isn’t the first biopic to attempt to emancipate the slain 16th U.S. President from plaster sainthood – John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda, and the TV adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, starring Sam Waterston, previously attempted to do just that – but this film is the first to assemble such a stellar ensemble of talent both in front of and behind the camera to tell his story.
Foregoing the conventional “greatest hits” biopic route in favor of focusing on the final few months of Abraham Lincoln’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) life and Presidency, Spielberg’s film tells the story of Lincoln’s quest to pass the 13th Amendment that will abolish slavery as the bloody Civil War draws to a close. This is President Lincoln at his most world-weary and yet most powerful. Lincoln must use every political favor, ruse, and tactic he and his team can muster to get the amendment passed.
The President treads a fine line at every turn. He must keep the conservative, abolitionist wing of his Republican party happy (led by Tommy Lee Jones’ bewigged Thaddeus Stevens and Hal Holbrook’s wizened old power broker), while also having his team (David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward and James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson as a trio of lobbyists) outfox members of the opposition (including Lee Pace as a fiery congressman). They must also convert any timid Republicans in states that don’t favor abolition (such as Michael Stuhlbarg and Walton Goggins’ respective congressmen) in order to gain the necessary votes.
Meanwhile, Lincoln also deals with his strained family life. His eldest son Robert Todd (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) chafes at his parents’ refusal to let him join the Army and fight in the war, while troubled First Lady Mary (Sally Field) continues to mourn the loss of their son Willie a few years earlier. Lincoln finds solace in the company of his youngest child, the rambunctious, mischievous Tad (Gulliver McGrath), who is often seen running amok in the White House dressed in his little soldier’s uniform.
Adapted by acclaimed playwright and Munich screenwriter Tony Kushner from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestseller A Team of Rivals, the window of time that Lincoln hones in on offers us a wide range of facets to his character: exhaustion, loneliness, determination, frustration, anger, playfulness, righteousness, caginess, humor, all of which are indelibly realized by Day-Lewis in a performance that will almost certainly net him his third Oscar as Best Actor. (But what about That Voice? It’s fine and, based on the historical record, is far closer to what the real Lincoln sounded like than the sonorous tones of Gregory Peck or that Lincoln automaton at Disneyland.)
Not only is Day-Lewis the spitting image of Lincoln here, but he also captures the vulnerability and innate decency of the man who was perhaps the most human and accessible of all Presidents. He finds the wit and whimsy that were as much a part of the man as his deep melancholy and renowned oratory. In many ways, Lincoln was a poet and Day-Lewis and Kushner portray that side of him. Some of the movie’s most endearing moments involve Lincoln telling funny anecdotes, often to the consternation of his staff (especially Bruce McGill’s Edwin Stanton). If someone had told me a year ago that Spielberg’s Lincoln would be a funnier movie than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I might not have believed them.
The film boasts an amazing cast, with Jones, Strathairn, Spader, Pace, and Stuhlbarg the standouts. Field and Gordon-Levitt are solid as Mary Todd and Robert Todd Lincoln, respectively, but they sometimes lack chemistry with Day-Lewis. (Field does have one particularly effective scene where she belittles Jones, realizing the dream of every journalist who has ever interviewed the infamously gruff actor).
Mad Men’s Jared Harris and Watchmen’s Jackie Earle Haley have small, but memorable roles as General Ulysses Grant and Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens, respectively. Gloria Reuben plays Elizabeth, Mary’s friend and servant who is, ironically, the only African-American character with any dimension to them in a story about their emancipation from slavery. (Red Tails’ David Oyelowo gets a nice scene with Lincoln, but it’s just a cameo.)
In many ways, Lincoln is a companion piece to Spielberg’s earlier slavery drama Amistad, but unlike that stodgy film this movie has both a pulse and a better script. Still, Lincoln often feels like a grand TV movie, especially in its homestretch where there are a few awkward, telepic-style transitions. And for a film so determined to show us a human Lincoln, its final images embrace the very sort of heavy-handed hagiography it had thus far resisted.
Overall, Lincoln is an engaging, albeit stagebound drama that finds the heart and humor in Abraham Lincoln as he led the Union during its bleakest days. The film succeeds most as a showcase for all the amazing acting talent involved, particularly the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s also one of Steven Spielberg’s finest films in years.