When you buy a ticket to the latest Steven Spielberg war drama, you might have your heart set on a few things: blockbuster-scale war scenes, enough explosions to last a lifetime, and maybe even some interesting cinematography. In Lincoln, however, what you get is perhaps the most riveting history lesson you’ve ever had, in a surprisingly subtle and understated format. The screenplay, written by Pulitzer award winner Tony Kushner and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, covers the final months of the 16th president’s life as he struggles to abolish slavery via the Thirteenth Amendment.
American figures as iconic as Abraham Lincoln are often relegated to the history books as the relics of a lost era. We rarely think of them as walking, talking mortals just like us (setting aside that whole “running a nation” bit). Lincoln shows us the tumultuous waters Lincoln navigated, battling political opposition in the House of Representatives, the imposed stress of his domineering, mentally-ill wife, and the internal conflict that came from trying to balance the nation’s desire to end the civil war and his desire to end slavery while it was possible. The film humanizes a man who led our nation through some of its most trying times, bringing to life a character who, up until now, has been a mere painting in a museum.
It is Daniel Day-Lewis’ masterful interpretation and incredible performance as Lincoln that truly brings that painting to life. The performance is obviously Oscar-worthy; perhaps one of the best performances of the year. The physical likeness is uncanny, but it's the mannerisms, voice, and way of speaking that really stun the audience. For most of the film it was easy to forget it was Daniel Day-Lewis at all; he was Lincoln, and we have the privilege of watching him push through the Thirteenth Amendment by sheer force of will, combining backroom politics, strategic manipulation of the imminent end of the civil war, and even some down-and-dirty bribery. Some of this comes as Honest Abe, who we immortalize as morally pristine, but what we’re really seeing is the account of a man who, though kind and gentle in demeanor, stops at nothing to move the nation forward, holding the ends above the means. Heavy in speeches and monologues, the screenplay could have felt clunky or dry, but instead Day-Lewis breathes life into every word in his subtle performance, forcing us to lean forward, clamoring for the next sentence. This is historical drama at its best.
The large, and wonderfully-talented supporting cast was made up of Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as their son Robert, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, and a handful of others recognizable more by face than name. Tommy Lee Jones’ performance is a stand-out as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republical demanding not only emancipation of the slaves, but complete equality between races. He provides an apt foil to our calm, cool, and collected Lincoln, also adding some comic relief when things begin to feel too heavy.
I think this film could only be a disappointment to viewers expecting a more exaggerated action-war blockbuster or a biopic laying out the details of Lincoln’s life. Instead, this is about watching the man behind the myth, working ever so quietly and methodically, to bring the US to a major turning point for racial equality. In doing that, the Spielberg/Kushner/Day-Lewis trifecta succeeds, breathing new life into a fascinating turn of events too-soon forgotten after our American history lessons.
"Lincoln" opens November 16, 2012 and is rated PG13. Drama, War. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner. Starring Daniel Day Lewis, David Strathairn, Jackie Earle Haley, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones.