Daniel Day-Lewis shines in Spielberg’s epic historical bio of the Great Emancipator.
Spielberg’s film focuses on Lincoln’s campaign to abolish slavery with a constitutional amendment while trying to bring an end to the civil war. Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln with a quiet authority. He is grandfatherly and reflective at times, stoic with a steely determination at others. You see Lincoln the storyteller, Lincoln the orator and Lincoln the sharp-minded lawyer at his presidential best. Tony Kushner’s screenplay handles Lincoln with some reverence, and there is a gravitas and presence to Day-Lewis’ performance that reflects this. Yet also, Day-Lewis manages to demystify and humanize Lincoln as an earthy, charismatic and humble character. It’s a great performance, despite the fact that on a couple of occasions, his meaningful gazes into the middle-distance are only a pout away from Derek Zoolander’s ‘Blue Steel’!
The movie picks up at the start of Lincoln’s second term of office. The civil war is raging, with slavery at its heart, and congress is at an impasse regarding amendment 13. While Lincoln’s Republican party sees the abolition of slavery as the key to ending the war, the majority of Democrats see peace with the Confederates at risk if the amendment is passed. Cue some dastardly political maneuvering as the Republicans seek to persuade their Democratic counterparts, by fair means and foul, to do the right thing. Meanwhile, clandestine peace negotiations are planned with the Confederates and family life at the White House is explored, as Lincoln and the First Lady come to terms with the loss of their child.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Lincoln is a wonderful cast. There really is wall-to-wall quality in the casting. Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln with an intensity and sparkling charisma. The adaptable Joseph Gordon-Levitt puts in a good turn as Robert, Lincoln’s rebellious eldest son. And Tommy Lee Jones must be set for an Oscar in one of the best performances of his career. It’s a measured performance of Senator Thaddeus Stevens, with bursts of flair and humor, mixed with an inner-sorrow. It’s also great to see the ever-reliable Hal Holbrook (now in his eighties) still turning on the old magic as Preston Blair. David Strathairn is solid as Lincoln’s deputy and Jackie Earle Harley excels as the Confederate vice-president and chief peace negotiator. For me, it’s James Spader’s performance as W N Bilbo that really stands out. Spader is brilliant as the disreputable political spinner, who alongside John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson, undertakes the grubby dark arts of backstreet politics. It’s a reminder of what a talent Spader is, as he steals every scene he’s in.
The film is interwoven with many of Lincoln’s real life stories, and the film highlights his connection and availability to everyday Americans. At one point, it’s amazing to see a queue of people at the Whitehouse, who are let in to speak to the President in person. You also see how Lincoln travelled, often in open carriages with little or no security – impossible to imagine now. As the films focus is the abolition of slavery, it is interesting that the African-American characters present, primarily take on the role of observer. Despite a standout cameo by David Oyelowo as a Union soldier, it is only through Gloria Rueben’s character Elizabeth Beckley, the Lincoln’s housemaid, that we are given a glimpse of slavery from an American-American perspective.
Lincoln is a very atmospheric picture and Spielberg’s attention to detail is extraordinary. The costumes, props and sets all seem meticulously researched and hold a slightly worn authenticity. Spielberg brings the hardships of the 1860’s to life and you come away with a real sense of the period, while at the same time, relieved to know that you can go get tacos somewhere. Unfortunately, we all know how it ends for Lincoln, but the way this is handled in the film is sensitive and unexpected. With so much historical material to work from, Spielberg’s film cannot cover everything. For example, the time Lincoln had a bare-fist fight with an ostrich, or the time he spent a whole day in congress wearing a top hat made from cream cheese did not make the final screenplay. And in case you were wondering, there’s not a vampire in sight.