A cinematic trifecta
By Cameron Lindsey
Raise your hand if you want to see a movie about Abraham Lincoln’s rise to the role of president, his famous Gettysburg Address, his assassination, or his brief stint as a vanquisher of the undead. If your hand is raised, you may not want to see Stephen Spielberg’s new movie Lincoln (though the recent Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer might appeal to those who raised their hands to the last point).
No, Lincoln is not an easy flick about our favorite anecdotes surrounding the sixteenth president of our fair Union. Lincoln is, however, a captivating legal drama that gives a more honest account of the, as it turns out, not so honest Abe.
The film surrounds Daniel Day-Lewis as the iconic president right before he starts his second term and in the concluding weeks of the Civil War. Its focus is on Lincoln’s struggles to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives to guarantee the freedom of all slaves. While the president has the support of the citizenry and many congressmen, he clashes with one of the political parties in the House (sound familiar?) and makes every attempt to secure the votes for his amendment—through legal and other means. On the domestic front, the film depicts a President who faces a mentally ailing wife, a son who wishes to join the military, and a conscience that frequently makes him reassess his choice to postpone the end of a bloody war in order to ensure the emancipation of all slaves.
All of this turmoil provides Day-Lewis with enough character development to garner him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. The sixteenth president certainly represents a change from Day-Lewis’ more recent roles. Lincoln is no Daniel Planview or Bill the Butcher. In Lincoln, Day-Lewis shows audiences his ability to quiet down and draw you in. Even when he does yell and lose his temper (the “Now, now, now” recognizable from the trailers), the speech comes off more as a scolding father who knows what is best than anger, and Day-Lewis’ ability to keep the audience in love with his character while convincing a city of bureaucrats to see his way is simply stunning. At the same time, Tony Kushner’s screenplay, loosely based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kerns Goodwin, provides Day-Lewis with scene-stealing displays of Lincoln’s aptitude for stories and witticisms. As an audience, we both laugh at the stories and nod in agreement at their moral that, yes, slavery is wrong.
Day-Lewis certainly does command the screen for the film’s two and a half hours, but the movie would not be the same without the supporting roles. Sally Field excellently performs her role as the psychologically unstable Mary Todd Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones does a wonderful job of being himself, as he does in so many roles, as the energetic abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Even moviegoers who only went out to see The Dark Knight Rises or Looper this season will be pleasantly surprised to see Joesph Gordon-Levitt in the role as Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert.
This is where Spielberg’s direction really shows through. Each of these actors, nuanced either by their previous roles, hiatus from the big screen, or acting limitations, exhibits a performance that seems meant for them. Spielberg recreates these historical characters so that Jones, for example, can use his southern scruff in a way that makes audiences genuinely care for the embittered old man when he passionately calls for abolition. Spielberg’s ability to command both tragedy and comedy in stories and actors also comes through in Field’s performance as she fights with depression in one scene and makes audiences laugh in the next. In Lincoln, Spielberg shows his skill by taking a story filled with legal jargon and constitutional law that every audience member knows and still managing to put on a show that has audiences crying, laughing, and celebrating along with all of his characters.
Ultimately, there are no surprises in Lincoln. For those of you who have not passed seventh grade, spoiler alert: the South loses, the Thirteenth Amendment passes, and Lincoln dies. Amazingly, though, Spielberg whips up his cinematic magic to present a movie that captivates its audience in a story that could easily have been summarized through a look at the vote in the House of Representatives on that January day in 1865. With a script that brings humor and applause, award-winning performances, and original music by John Williams that could make C-SPAN seem empowering, Lincoln tells a powerful story of a powerful man in one of the most powerful films of the year.