The one thing which always drove me nuts in history class as a kid was how the teachers and the books we read made the past seem so much better than our present. We were taught about how Presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were such great leaders who helped make America the country it is today, and in the process, they were turned into mythological characters to where we forgot they were human beings like the rest of us. Juxtaposing this with the politics of America back when Ronald Reagan was President, it looked like we could do nothing but complain about the state of the world. It made me wonder what we did as Americans which made us seem so ungrateful for what our forefathers brought about.
This is why I’m thankful for movies like Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” which helps to humanize those historical figures we learned about in class. In this case, the historical figure is Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. The film focuses on the last four months of his Presidency when the Civil War was raging on and was insistent on getting the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, passed in the House of Representatives. It presents this President, one of the greatest America has ever known, as a flesh and blood human being endowed with strengths and flaws which will make you admire him more than ever before.
Much of the accomplishment in making President Lincoln so vividly human here is the result of another unsurprisingly brilliant performance from the great Daniel Day Lewis. Known for his intense method acting and laser sharp focus in preparing for each role he does, he brings his own touches to a man so defined by his historical deeds, and he succeeds in making this character his own during the movie’s two and a half hour running time.
“Lincoln” also shows how the world of politics has always been a cutthroat place to be in. The Republican and Democratic parties were much different than from what they are today, but during the 1800’s getting certain amendments passed involved a lot of tricks which were not always highly regarded. Even Lincoln wasn’t above hiring three politicians, played by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and James Spader, to lobby members of the House to vote in favor of passing the Thirteenth Amendment. But what made this President’s actions especially courageous was how he wasn’t just thinking about solving the country’s problems but of the effects this particular amendment would have on generations to come.
“Lincoln” also delves into the President’s personal life which had been fractured by the loss of a child and was also unsteady due to the fiery personality of his wife Mary, played by Sally Field. Watching Field here reminds us of what a remarkable actress she remains after all these years. Field is such a live wire as she struggles to make her husband see the consequences of the actions he is about to take. The actress had signed on to play this role years ago, back when Liam Neeson was set to play Lincoln, and she had to fight to keep it. It’s a good thing Spielberg kept her around because she has always been a tremendous acting talent, and she enthralls us in every scene she appears in.
Like many of Spielberg’s best films, there isn’t a single weak performance to be found in “Lincoln” which boasts quite the cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who had a heck of a year in 2012 with “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Looper” and “Premium Rush,” is excellent as Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, who considers quitting school to join the army and fight for his country. David Strathairn is a wonderfully strong presence as Secretary of State William Seward, the great Hal Holbrook is unforgettable as the influential politician Francis Preston Blair, Gloria Reuben is very moving in her performance as former slave Elizabeth Keckley, and Jackie Earle Haley has some strong moments as the Confederate States Vice President Alexander H. Stephens.
But the one great performance which needs to be singled out in “Lincoln,” other than the ones given by Lewis or Field, is Tommy Lee Jones’ who portrays the Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens. Jones is a powerhouse throughout as he empowers this fervent abolitionist with a passion as undeniable as it is undying, and seeing him reduce other congressional members to jelly is a thrill to witness. Jones is tremendous as we see him fight for what he feels is right regardless of how he goes about achieving it.
Spielberg employs his usual band of collaborators here like producer Kathleen Kennedy, director of photography Janusz Kamiński, editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams to create a movie which captures the importance of Lincoln’s place in history while also making it intimate in a way we don’t expect it to be. He also benefits from having the great playwright Tony Kushner on board as the movie’s screenwriter. Kushner’s knowledge of history has never been in doubt ever since we witnessed his magnum opus of “Angels in America,” and word is he spent six years working on the script for “Lincoln.” His efforts do show as he gives us a riveting portrait of a divided nation on the verge of making a major change, and even back then America was resistant and deeply frightened to making certain changes regardless of whether or not it would benefit from them.
Granted, Lincoln’s life would probably be better explored in a miniseries as there is so much to explore, and this movie can explore only so much of it. Regardless, “Lincoln” is an invigorating portrait of a great American President who fought for the benefit of his country’s future. The sacrifices he made tragically cut his life short, but his legacy will never ever die as Spielberg’s film rightly proves.