Abraham Lincoln is a difficult man to portray on film. A racist abolitionist, a painfully shy and unlikely commander in chief whose personal life was as tragic as his presidency was glorious, it seems a fool’s errand to attempt condensing him or his legacy to a 150 minute drama. Spielberg, however, does an admirable job in a film that, though flawed, is a powerful and worthy tribute to one of history’s most admired figures.
The most impressive thing about Lincoln is the potential it had to be a huge, sprawling mess. Rather misleadingly titled, it is not a biopic nor is it about the civil war. Rather, it centres on how the President rallied support for the thirteenth amendment, the abolition of slavery. A nearly 3 hour drama that takes place mainly on the debate floor of a deeply divided senate, this could have very easily turned into a bloated, boring, talky history lesson. Instead, Spielberg has assembled a surprising and pitch-perfect cast, and uses the story of the amendment to shed light on duty, the lessons history has for us even today and most importantly, on Lincoln himself.
Spielberg is on top form here, pulling emotional punches at all the right moments and the actors themselves are equally impressive. Daniel Day-Lewis is characteristically outstanding in the starring role, perfecting mannerisms and a voice that is at once humble and approachable, yet simultaneously capable of carrying the weight of responsibility and sorrow Lincoln must have felt. At the end of the film, Ulysses S. Grant comments to the President that he looks as though he has aged 10 years in a few months. As an audience member, you find yourself entirely believing it, though Day-Lewis never shows his character losing his famed restraint and calm.
His is far from the only noteworthy performance in a formidable and varied cast. Tommy Lee-Jones is a wonderful surprise, adding unexpected humour in the surly but good-hearted leader of the opposition, who supports the thirteenth amendment despite his political opposition to Lincoln. Sally Field, as the infamously deranged Mary Todd Lincoln, gives an impressive performance, managing to make her character both a screeching, intolerable shrew and a devoted, heartbroken mother in turns. There is a lively ragtag band of outlaws, tasked with coaxing the opposition under-the-table, who add much-appreciated joviality. And David Strathern acts as the fiercely loyal but exhausted voice of reason, charged with the impossible mission of garnering support for the bill.
While the movie is dialogue-heavy, it manages to avoid becoming tedious or preachy. It deftly weaves gravitas, humour, drama and history. It avoids melodrama, with the brutal scenes of civil war playing out without fanfare or ceremony, and showing how truly barbaric and scarring the ordeal must have been for the American people. The most tense scenes involve the President’s personal and political conflicts, take place inside offices and behind closed doors, but are no less powerful for how Day-Lewis’s restrained but
The movie has its shortcomings: it fails to acknowledge Lincoln’s own well-documented racial prejudices, a significant omission. His children flit in and out of scenes at opportune moments to play to our emotions, without forming any true character themselves, making Joseph Gordon Levitt’s appearance to be more distraction than substance. And for a movie regarding the abolition of slavery, the slaves themselves do little but act as background, having only a handful of lines throughout the film.
This, however, is henpecking at an otherwise fine achievement. Undoubtedly headed to the Oscar nominee list this year, Lincoln gets my vote.