Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jared Harris, David Strathairn, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson
If you go into Lincoln expecting to see Steven Spielberg’s take on his assassination, you are going into the wrong movie. You will also not see a movie focused on his whole presidency making you feel like you are back in history class seeing a badly narrated movie. Even though the assassination is included, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner focus their film on Lincoln’s (Day-Lewis) battle to pass the 13th amendment to abolish slavery.
Lincoln was opposed to slavery and needed to get enough votes in the house to have the amendment pass. At the time, there was a sharp divide between the people regarding the equality of the races. Lincoln must also deal with the timing and outcome of the Civil War as the results of each have a drastic impact on the other one. On the side of the president we have his Secretary of State William Seward (Strathairn) and staunch abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) among others. Opposing them and opposing the amendment are Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood (Pace) and Ohio representative George H. Pendleton (Peter McRobbie) to name a few.
Lincoln did not have it easy dealing with his family life back inside the walls of the White House. His wife Mary Todd Lincoln (Field) is having a hard time dealing with the death of their middle son William. She was a strong supporter of her husband’s politics and was always a presence at the house hearings. Their oldest son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) has left school and returned home to fight in the war against his parents’ wishes. They are far too fearful of him perishing in combat. He joins the Union Army and is an attendant under Ulysses S. Grant (Harris).
The brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Tony Kushner and Spielberg previously collaborated together on Munich back in 2005. He has based his screenplay on a small portion of the epic book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Many political movies tend to feel stuffy and slow. Sometimes those movies are so full of themselves that they expect you to be a history major in order to understand what is going on. His screenplay is smart, intelligent, and funny without feeling too high brow or too smart for your standard movie going audience. He knows how to make his characters three dimensional and real without them feeling like the stiff caricatures we may have in our heads of who these people might be. Kushner has never been known to write a simple and short script. I applaud him for finding a way the keep the courtroom scenes quick and snappy. I found myself on the edge of my seat as if I did not already know how it was going to end.
When you have a rich story to tell full of historical personalities, you need a top-notch ensemble of actors. Spielberg has gathered another fine company of actors. You can scroll down the cast list and notice the plethora of heavy hitters that are known for being fantastic character actors. It seems as if anyone was willing to be a part of this movie no matter how big or small the role happened to be. You most likely will not even notice that Kevin Kline plays “Wounded Soldier”. Kushner has given them all such brilliant material that each character has their moments to shine. Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, and James Spader are hysterical as the three negotiators that Lincoln hires to go out and get the vote from some of the strongest house members who oppose the amendment. Gloria Reuben is quite moving and touching as Elizabeth Keckley who is always at the side of Mary during the hearings. Tommy Lee Jones is one of those actors that always seems perfect for his part. You know he is still Tommy Lee Jones and his gruff voice and attitude is there, but it always seems to work for each of his characters. There is plenty of humor with his character as well. His subtle facial expressions speak volumes. Sally Field could easily walk away with her third Oscar for his performance as Mary Todd Lincoln. The movie does not focus necessarily on how disturbed many people thought Mary was, nor does it just paint her as a grieving mother. Field knows when and where to play each emotional side of her character whether she is yelling at Abraham or putting her foot down toward Thaddeus Stevens.
The core of this ensemble belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis. The Academy should just print his name on the envelope at this point. I do not believe any other actor will be stiff competition for him. His approach to playing our sixteenth president is a master-class in acting. Never once did I think I was watching Daniel Day-Lewis. I never thought about Daniel Plainview, Bill the Butcher, Christy Brown, or any of his other characters. I was watching Lincoln fight for his beliefs, struggle to keep Robert out of the war, and deal with the death of his middle son. Like many of his followers, I was enthralled by his speeches and metaphors. Day-Lewis found the perfect voice for Lincoln that will make you forget about any notion of him being a deep-voiced man. He knew how to carry a room and the actor knows how to command the screen.
Many people think Spielberg has been hit or miss lately, but even his toughest critics will come way applauding this movie. Sure, it still has some flaws and you may agree or disagree with how he and Kushner end the movie. Lincoln is his best film since Saving Private Ryan. It is one of the most important films to see in theaters right now not only to see how one of the greatest presidents shaped history, but to see how it resonates with the politics we face in today’s society. Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field could easily walk away with their third Oscars. Tommy Lee Jones should expect a nomination and possibly a win. The whole ensemble of actors do strong work making their characters stand out no matter who small or minor they are to the story. I hope the movie encourages people to care about history. Hopefully, you may find yourself picking up “Team of Rivals” or stopping on the History Channel the next time there is a story about the Lincolns.
RATING: ***** (5 out of 5 stars)