At the moment of Abraham Lincoln’s death, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, standing at the foot of Lincoln’s bed, said “Now he belongs to the ages”. Indeed, Lincoln became immortalized as moral icon, martyr and master of language (all of which he was). But, because we didn’t see Lincoln campaign and govern on the nightly television news (or even on newsreels), there has been no popular familiarity with Lincoln in the flesh. With Lincoln, Steven Spielberg has pushed aside the marble statue and re-introduced us Lincoln the man.
The great actor Daniel Day-Lewis becomes the man Lincoln. We see him as the genius of political strategy who is always several moves ahead of the other players. We see him as the pragmatist who will do what is necessary to accomplish his goals. We see him fondly cajoling his wife but gingerly avoiding her outbursts. We see him as a complex father – grieving one son, doting to a second, distant to another. And we see Lincoln as a very funny guy – both a master communicator who tells anecdotes to make his point and a raconteur who enjoys laughing at his own bawdy stories. Day-Lewis brings all of these aspects to life in a great performance.
Besides Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, as a key Congressional leader, and James Spader, as a political fixer, get the best lines. Sally Field is perfectly cast as Mary Todd Lincoln. Bruce McGill, David Straithern, Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris (Mad Men) and Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children) are all excellent, too.
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner chose to focus on the few months at the end of the Civil War when Lincoln was trying to get Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to ban slavery. Lincoln knew that, once the Civil War ended, his earlier Emancipation Proclamation was unlikely to withstand legal and political challenges and act to permanently ban slavery. He also gauged that passage of the 13th Amendment was only viable before the end of the war, which was within sight. His only recourse was to try to rush a successful vote over both the obstructionism of the opposing party and attempted sabotage by the Confederacy while both wings of his own party refused to join in collaboration. It’s a horse race.
So we have a political thriller – one of the best depictions of American legislative politics ever on film. Lincoln retains a team of lobbyists played by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and Spader. These guys know that appealing to the principles of the targeted Congressmen is not going to get enough votes, so they enthusiastically plunge into less high minded tactics. Spader’s character operates with unmatched gusto and is one of the highlights of the movie. Lincoln’s lawyerly parsing of a note to Congress would put Bill Clinton to shame.
All of this really happened. Lincoln, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s absorbing Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, is utterly historically accurate. Lincoln buffs will especially appreciate small touches like Lincoln’s pet name for his wife, Stanton’s aversion to Lincoln’s endless stream of anecdotes, Thaddeus Stevens’ wig, Ben Wade’s scowl, Lincoln’s secretaries (the White House staff) sharing a bed and the never ending flood of favor-seekers outside the door of the President’s White House office. I think that Mary Lincoln is portrayed a bit too sympathetically, but that’s a tiny quibble. One more fun note: the 1860s were to male facial hair what the 1970s were to apparel – a period when everyone could make the most flamboyant fashion choices, mostly for the worse.
Lincoln is one of the year’s best films, and like Lincoln himself, timeless.