We all have our own image of Abraham Lincoln in our head. One of the most beloved presidents in U.S. history, his legend has reached mythical levels. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln brings the popular image of the man to life, flaws and all. Rather than creating a convoluted whole-life biopic, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (working from a mere five pages of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”) have wisely chosen to hone in on the final four months of Lincoln’s life. The end result is an incredibly engaging political procedural, with many of the specifics seeming all too familiar in today’s political landscape.
The story picks up just as Lincoln has been elected to a second term. The Civil War is still going strong with no end in sight. With much political power and a sizeable number of lame duck Democrats with nothing to lose, Lincoln views it as the perfect time to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which would abolish slavery and essentially force the Confederates hand in the war. With the assistance of his Secretary of State, William Seward (Strathairn), and the ever-aggressive Pennsylvanian Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), Lincoln looks to “procure” the necessary votes for the required two-thirds majority. Meanwhile, his son, Robert (Gordon-Levitt), wants to join the Union forces, despite wife Mary Todd’s (Field) adamant disapproval.
Kushner’s script does a masterful job of what it takes to play the political game. Lincoln is never above old tricks like bribes and even blackmail. He viewed slavery as immoral and a disease that the country had to rid itself of. Kushner’s script keeps things grounded, as the majority of the film is men talking and debating. The circus that was/is the U.S. Congress is colorfully illustrated in scenes of Republicans and Democrats exchanging barbs and personal attacks. The subplot involving Robert wanting to join the Union is pretty half-baked, as is Mary Todd’s seemingly endless misery. Additionally, Spielberg had an opportunity to end the film just following the passage of the amendment, but instead opted to add an unnecessary scene announcing Lincoln’s assassination (we all know how he died and it adds nothing to the story at hand). Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t just act, he transforms into Lincoln. His mannerisms, his voice; it all feels hauntingly authentic. It’s a powerful performance, and the year’s best. Tommy Lee Jones deserves similar praise for his depiction of the hot-blooded Stevens. A scene where he confronts a lame duck Democrat about his voting on the amendment is the film’s finest – and funniest. Sally Field and Joseph Gordon-Levitt provide dependable supporting work, even if their characters are undercooked. Lincoln is Spielberg’s best film since 2005’s Munich, and one of 2012’s finest.
Studio: Touchstone Pictures
Length: 150 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language.
Theatrical Release: November 16, 2012
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner. Based upon (in part) “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader