Lincoln. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. Rating: 8 (out of 10)
STEVEN Spielberg's Lincoln is a revelation for those who know the 16th American president only as the imposing marble statue in the U.S. capital, or the taciturn, animatronic Disney attraction Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln.
Spielberg, working from Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and aided by the narrative skills of Pulitzer Prizewinning Tony Kushner, creates a flesh-and-blood portrait of a man hell-bent on passing the 13th Amendment and abolishing slavery, and willing to sacrifice friends, bend laws and risk his fragile marriage in the process.
Spielberg's approach to this piece of history could not be more distinct from his Saving Private Ryan: the film takes place during the Civil War (new data suggests a higher death toll, 750,000) but we don't linger on bloody battlefields for too long. This is a thinking-person's movie, and a long one at that: two and a half hours of wheedling, dealing and speechmaking could try anyone's patience, but the director manages to leave us wanting more.
The film opens in battle, to convey what's at stake. The men fight in mud so rich, you can't tell which side is which. Post Gettysburg, two black soldiers quote Lincoln's address back to him, and wonder about the practical implications. (Equal pay? A black general some day?) "Slavery troubled me for as long as I remember," says Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis).
It's 1865, the fourth year of civil war, and Lincoln has been re-elected. He is pushing to pass the amendment while his advisers believe that surrender by the south can be achieved without it. Former foe Sec. of State William Henry Seward (David Strathairn) advises Lincoln to give up the fight: "why tarnish your invaluable luster?" Lincoln eventually turns to a team of unsavoury characters (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson, playing early lobbyists) to bribe senators with cushy positions should they side with Lincoln. He also refuses an offer to sit down and negotiate with southern generals, knowing that the end of slavery would take a backseat to the end of a bloody war.
At home, Lincoln in turn soothes and spars with wife Mary Todd (Sally Field). Smart and politically savvy, Mary promoted Lincoln relentlessly before he was elected, famously saying "he is to be President of the United States some day; if I had not thought so I never would have married him, for you can see he
is not pretty." Now feeling useless for his career, and battling depression over the death of their son Willie, Mary suffers headaches and wonders "how to endure the long afternoon." She is unable to care for their youngest son Tad and can't bear the thought of losing her eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to the battlefields of the civil war: she wonders if her husband shouldn't just commit her to an asylum and get it over with. (She would be committed briefly after her husband's assassination, and her mental health never recovered).
It's impressive listening to Day-Lewis wrap his tongue around Kushner's dialogue, and the likeness is remarkable. But Day-Lewis' real gift is the convincing portrayal of a plain-spoken yet complicated man. The man who managed a rowdy White House, full of petitioners jockeying to air their complaints; a man who kept his speeches in his hat, who could spin a lengthy yarn to explicate or defuse a tense situation, and who had a good dose of humour and melancholy in equal measure; an unusually tender father.
There are historical side plots aplenty that scream for their own film treatment, such as the story of Lydia Hamilton Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson) who may have had 25-year relationship with "Rebel Republican" congressman Thaddeus Stevens (an excellent Tommy Lee Jones, playing a Yankee for a change) or of Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), a former slave who bought her own freedom at the age of 39 and then went on to become Mary Lincoln's dressmaker and confidant.
Spielberg reportedly had the crew wear period garb to create verisimilitude on set. And though there is plenty of politicizing in the senate by guys in wigs this is an intensely personal side of Lincoln, as a man dealing with the stress of a crowded office, a mercurial wife, the mounting body count of a bloody civil war, and his own personal grief.