Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field
Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln is a match made in heaven. It’s a logical casting decision for our greatest living actor to portray perhaps the most influential individual in American history, even if Day-Lewis is of British and Irish citizenship. There are few modern performers who could convincingly convey an icon as significant as Lincoln. In Steven Spielberg’s grand new film, however, Day-Lewis perfectly manifests all of the attributes one would expect from our 16th president. He suitably represents Lincoln as a humble, wise, determined, and even playfully humorous man born to lead. There’s never a moment of uncertainty in which we doubt Day-Lewis. He is Abraham Lincoln in a performance that will surely warrant an Oscar nomination.
Lincoln undoubtedly has one of the most famous and arresting life stories of any presidential leader. Even in a two and a half hour film, it would have been impossible for Spielberg to thoroughly cover Lincoln’s early childhood, practice in law, and four years in the presidential office. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner made the correct decision in just focusing on the final months of his life in “Lincoln.” Their adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” richly illustrates the creation of the 13th Amendment, which would end slavery in addition to the Civil War.
While this historic event has played a key role in many other entertainments before, never has it been so deeply explored than in Kushner’s highly researched, detailed script. It’s captivating to witness Lincoln and the men of his cabinet attempt to win enough votes in the House of Representatives to get the amendment passed. Their tactics range from appealing to the emotions of various house members to practically blackmailing them in some cases. Even if “Lincoln” primarily consists of men sitting and talking in a room, Spielberg never allows the film to feel like a motionless play on screen. He packs ever scene with the intensity and raw emotion of an American epic.
While Day-Lewis is faultless in the role of Lincoln, this is far from a one-man show. Tommy Lee Jones is at his best as Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most dominating men in Congress and a key supporter of Lincoln’s cause for emancipation. Also helping to abolish slavery is David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, often acting as a loyal, insightful follower and friend to the president. The names keep coming with somewhat brief, but extremely impactful, appearances from Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair, John Hawkes as Robert Latham, a hilarious James Spader as William N. Bilboe, and Lee Pace as the antagonistic Fernando Wood.
After being mostly absent from feature films for most of the 21st century, the mesmerizing Sally Field comes back in a Best Supporting Actress caliber performance as Mary Todd Lincoln. Field hits just the right note as the first lady, a colorful, if not a tad looney, woman who is grief-stricken by the loss of her sons. Abe and Mary still nevertheless find comfort in their remaining boys, little Gulliver McGrath as the bouncy Tad Lincoln and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, who feels guilty that he has received an education while other men his age are dying in the war. The only thing that might have made “Lincoln” an even better film would be if there had been a few more moments between the president and his immediate family. When compared to the scenes pertaining to the 13th Amendment and the Civil War though, Lincoln’s family life can be a little underdeveloped. Thus, “Lincoln” never feels as personal as something like the “John Adams” miniseries, starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney. As a movie about political tactics and policies though, “Lincoln” is still one of the most absorbing and brilliantly acted historical biopics you will ever see.
“Lincoln” probably won’t blow away those with no interest in U.S. history and require constant action to keep them entertained. Perhaps they would have a better time at “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” which was admittedly a guilty pleasure for me. Anyone who’s enthralled by the legacy of Lincoln and thoughtful filmmaking though is going to find this one stellar outing. Even when the film works up to the famous night at the theater that everybody knows about, “Lincoln” still manages to compose strong sentiment, sympathy and tears for the beloved president. That’s the true mark of an absolutely great film.