By January 1865, the US suffered the carnage of four years of civil war with its hundreds of thousands dead. Victory is near and the President, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), sees that the time will quickly come when his emancipation act, the pending 13th Amendment to the Constitution, will no longer be an issue of the public interest. The president has a mere three weeks to garner enough votes in Congress to, once more, make American history as “Lincoln.”
I do not normally refer to me in my reviews but, this time, I cannot help it. I have been a Civil War buff since I was a kid and I have read anything I could lay my hands on about Abraham Lincoln and his tumultuous presidency. So, Steven Spielberg had me when the “Lincoln” buzz began and Daniel Day-Lewis became attached to the project. (Liam Neeson was originally to play the president but he did not get to kill a lot of people on screen, so he was “Taken.” Twice.)
When the camera first rests on the familiar craggy face of the titular character, my very first thought was: Daniel Day-Lewis. This thought, though, was fleeting as I watched the actor morph into his role and become Abraham Lincoln in the flesh. Lincoln’s voice (almost a reedy falsetto), his mannerisms, habits, passions and very character are all well documented and well known to the above-mentioned buffs. This is what is remarkable in Day-Lewis’s award-worthy performance: for two an one-half hours, we see our best president ever come to life.
The filmmakers (actor Day-Lewis, director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner) take Lincoln’s folksy manner, stooped posture and ability to defuse a tense situation with one homily or another (often to the frustrated distraction of those used to the president’s rambling, round about ways) and render the man perfectly. I laughed out loud at the punch lines of some of Lincoln’s funny but poignant stories that always got around to making their relevant point in times of trial. It is a remarkable performance by a remarkable actor.
The supporting cast is huge but virtually everyone involved as major American historical figures give fine performances. There are several notable ones, though, with Sally Field standing out as Mary Todd Lincoln. Mrs. Lincoln had her own share of demons, foibles and misfortunes, including losing young son Willie in the early days of the war. Field captures the hint of mental issues brewing just below the surface, the strong-willed passion of the woman, especially when it concerns her remaining sons, and the mutual love between her and Lincoln.
Unless you are familiar with all the players in those most turbulent times in American history, you might find the whirl of these many characters a little confusing, but several deserve note. Tommy Lee Jones gives bombast to his Thaddeus Stevens, the powerful chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who leads the support in the House for passing the anti-slavery act. His Stevens is witty, loud and in control, even with his ill-fitting wig askew on his bald pate. Also good is David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward who, against his judgment and convictions, led Lincoln’s campaign to buy patronage votes in Congress to support passing the 13th Amendment. James Spader gives sly humor to his W.N. Bilbo, the leader of the unscrupulous trio (with Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes) hired by Seward to buy Congressional votes. There are many other fine performances – too many to mention here.
Acting, alone, can make a good movie. A great film, though, is the combination of good (or, here, great) acting, superb screenplay, attention to production and its details, like costume and set design, skilled cinematography and, of course, a first rate director. “Lincoln” falls into that rare category of: this does not feel like a Steven Spielberg movie. And, it does not. “Lincoln” is a transcendent film for the director, more than even “Schindler’s List,” and, from a historical chronicle told with honesty, may be his best, most completely realized film to date.
The story by Kushner is partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and covers the brief, three week period in January 1865 as Lincoln musters his considerable political talents to maintain the precarious balance of ending the war and ending slavery. Do not expect to see the history of the Lincoln presidency. Instead, the filmmakers give us a microcosm of that four-year reign in Lincoln’s maneuvering and manipulation to save his country and free all men that cold January. Some may find this brief interlude into our history insufficient in scope but “Lincoln” gives exactly the right attention to a significant event among so many significant historical events. I give it an A.
In January of 1865, the 16th president of the United States speaks to Union soldiers almost four years into the Civil War. They can all quote back his Gettysburg address to him, but one of them, Private Clark (David Oyelowo, "The Paperboy") from the infamous 54th Regiment of Massachusetts, makes an impassioned speech for equal rights. In the remaining three months of his life, the politics of ensuring the passage of the 13th Amendment even at the cost of ending the war will consume "Lincoln."
After last year's high tech animation of an old children's book that had inspired "Indiana Jones" and the decidedly old-fashioned approach to "War Horse," Steven Spielberg appeared to be mired in a rut. Expectations for the long-in-the-works "Lincoln," which was originally to have starred Liam Neeson (now in a weird 3rd act action rut of his own), were for another "Amistad." But "Lincoln" gives us a Spielberg we haven't seen before, one who can communicate nineteenth century American history somewhat in the way Kenneth Branaugh interpreted Shakespeare for modern audiences. Much of this can be attributed to a terrific script by Tony Kushner ("Angels in America," "Munich"), partially based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," but the director has a fresh playfulness about him, presenting us with a folksy, humorous, self-deprecating version of one of America's greatest presidents which I, for one, wasn't expecting.
After his opening gambit (the film will be bookended with yet another black character reciting important historical text), "Lincoln" initially seems a little daunting, at least to those of us who are not familiar with the huge cast of characters employed in this tale. After Daniel Day Lewis's ("There Will Be Blood") Lincoln, the first important character of note is Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn, "The Bourne Legacy"), who tries to reason that the only reason people support Lincoln's cherished amendment is to end the war more quickly. Lincoln the lawyer explains the rationale behind his Emancipation Proclamation and how even he wasn't sure his means to accomplish his ends were legal. Then Seward is astonished to discover that Lincoln has sent Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) to Richmond to speak with Jefferson Davis about brokering a peace agreement without his knowledge. Meanwhile, invectives fly on the floor of the House of Representatives, where Republican Ways and Means Committee Chairman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones, "Hope Springs") flings insults at his Democratic Confederacy supporter Fernando Wood (Lee Pace, "The Fall"). A Grand Reception at the White House folds Lincoln's family life into the picture. Lincoln's behind-the-scenes' politicking extends to both all three of these arenas.
Spielberg's Lincoln, so perfectly embodied by Day Lewis you'll forget you're not watching history come to life, is a tall, gaunt man who walks around the White House wrapped in a blanket at all hours of the night, stopping to tell his beloved (and very funny) stories to all who will listen. There are little nuggets sprinkled throughout his speech, such as how he compares Euclid's 'self evident' mathematical theory to human equality, or a speech to his hysterical wife Mary (a terrific, well cast Sally Field) that balances righteous indignation with thoughtful compassion. This is a Lincoln not above political hijinx, as evidenced by the humorous trio of characters hired by Seward and led by WN Bilbo (James Spader) to 'secure' Democratic votes. (This highly entertaining threesome, whose exploits earn a comedic montage, is matched by two others - the serious minded Southern peace delegates and the three Lincoln sons who lived in the White House, including the felt-but-not-seen ghost of Willie. Eldest son Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, "50/50," "Looper") has become a symbol of the war and battling point between Abe and his wife while his youngest, Tad (Gulliver McGrath, "Dark Shadows"), has become an indulged favorite in the wake of Willie's loss.)
Until the final scene, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski ("The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," "War Horse") gives the film the desaturated look of an old tapestry whose reds, whites and blues still shine through. An early dream sequence is unlike anything ever seen before in a Spielberg film, a bit of experimental, antiquated fancy one would expect in a Guy Maddin film. Spielberg stalwart John Williams even contributes a varied score which complements the film rather than his usual saccharine overkill. Costume, hair and makeup are all exemplary.
"Lincoln" boasts such a huge cast of faces famous and familiar, it would be impossible to list them all. Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Fields are standout support, but, in addition to those already mentioned, watch for John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jared Harris, Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McGill, Gregory Itzin and S. Epatha Merkerson (who gets to read the 13th). Adam Driver, so notable in HBO's 'Girls,' even gets face time as the telegram officer treated to that Euclid story. (The character faces come so fast and furious, at one point, I could have sworn I even saw David Spade in the House.)
If Spielberg betrays himself, it's with his weakness for never meeting another ending he must include. Lincoln's assassination is handled off screen in a very surprising way, a historically accurate bit of history many may not know. But then we must reflect further and then flash back for a bit of speechifying shot in a style incongruous to what has come before. However, never have Spielberg's multiple endings grated less. "Lincoln" is one of Spielberg's greatest achievements.
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