Today’s movie is Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed film about the sixteenth US President. The film was clearly conceived as and remains, in part, a biopic. However, it’s really a movie about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which formally and permanently abolished slavery.
The film begins shortly after the election of 1864. Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has just been re-elected as president. While the Civil War rages on, it has become clear that it has become not a question of if the Union will triumph in the conflict, but a matter of when and how. Against the backdrop of this great military conflict, Lincoln’s great desire is to see the abolition of slavery written into the constitution. There is a fear amongst abolitionists that if the amendment is not passed before a Union victory is assured, that it will never be passed. As such, Lincoln must balance his desire to bring the war to a swift conclusion against his desire to see slavery abolished once and for all.
With the amendment having already passed through the Senate, Lincoln sets a goal of having the amendment passed by the outgoing lame-duck House of Representatives. However, his Republican party is fractionally divided and, even if they can hold together, lacks the necessary super-majority to pass a constitutional amendment. Therefore, much of the film’s real drama lies in the backroom politics between Lincoln and members of that chamber.
Meanwhile, Lincoln is also faced with problems in his own household. His teenage son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is adamant in his desire to join the army and serve in the war, while his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), having already lost two sons to childhood maladies, forbids it.
Of course, nothing I’ve shared here is particularly new, these are well known historic events, and not really what makes this film a great film. What sets the film apart is the masterful way it is executed and presented. It begins with the fantastic screenplay provided by Tony Kushner. The film is packed with dialogue that is both powerful and clever, from the poison-tongued debate on the floor of the House, to the folksy wisdom of Lincoln himself. Spielberg’s direction has never been finer, the film is visually impressive, and moves at a comfortable pace through the not normally exciting ground or backroom politicking.
The acting throughout the film is impressive, and it seems that every actor involved knows they’re a part of something special, and brings something special to their performances. Amongst the standouts are Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist firebrand Thaddeus Stevens, James Spader as quirky lobbyist W.N. Bilbo, John Hawkes as Robert Latham and Lee Pace as Fernando Wood the chief orator opposed to the amendment. Jackie Earle Haley is chillingly human in the role of Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens. However, while each of these actors were excellent in their performances, they paled next to Day-Lewis’ Lincoln.
When Tommy Lee Jones was on the screen, I knew I was seeing Tommy Lee Jones performing a character, but when Daniel Day-Lewis was on the screen, I felt like I was actually watching Abraham Lincoln. I feel like I could or should spend several paragraphs on this performance, but honestly, nothing I write here could write here could do it justice. So, I’m not going to go any further.
As I have an interest in history and politics, I knew that I would really appreciate this movie, but I did wonder if it might be to dry for the average movie audience member. Inside politics can be boring, however, I honestly believe that the performances and the writing in the film are good enough to appeal to just about everybody. Sure the movie consists of mostly people sitting inside and having conversations… but what they say, and how they say it is simply fantastic. Lincoln is absolutely, and without a doubt, a Must See.