Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tony Kushner
George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt. These are oft considered the greatest presidents the United States has seen, and as a student of history it is hard for me to disagree. But what do I really know about these men other than the actions they took and what they did for this country? Who were they as men, because after all they were all men, right? Just like you and me? One assumes, but with history books writing out the laws and mandates they passed, the wars and battles they won, it is hard to glean from the pages who these men truly were and what made them the great men, the great leaders they were. I am not necessarily hypothesizing that Spielberg is covering that hole of history here. But he does do a nice job at showing us Lincoln as a man.
Most Americans will be familiar, at least casually, with who Abraham Lincoln was and what he did for this country. He, of course, was the president during the Civil War, when the southern states seceded from the Union behind the argument of states rights. Ultimately the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery, an issue that had been boiling many years prior to the actual fighting. Lincoln, portrayed wonderfully here by the great English actor Daniel Day-Lewis, seized the moment, and his position, to be able to maintain the Union as one, and do away with slavery once and for all. This is not a war film. This is a political film, about the dealing it took for Lincoln to get the 13th Amendment passed, the amendment which officially abolished slavery in the United States. It was a feat that was not accomplished without the help of people like Secretary of State William Seward (David Straitharn) and Representative Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones).
Spielberg is a famed director with a knack for nailing the blockbuster. This is not exactly the blockbuster type; I would file it more under the prestige category; some people would call it Oscar bait. I just call it a good story, and good filmmaking. The elements of the popular blockbuster are contained within. There are crowd pleasing moments and plenty of laughs even to be had throughout the film. But what I found to be the true stroke of genius by Spielberg and his team, was the decision to depict Lincoln in the light in which they did; and a lot of that had to do with the casting of Day-Lewis. He is as much a virtuoso an actor as there is working today, and he has his big moments. But his performance is marked by plenty moments of quiet reflection and contemplation; good and bad. Lincoln went through hell during his presidency, but the poignant moments of the film reveal the softer side of Lincoln, the side that made his human. And that is why the film is as effective in telling its tale as it is.
How historically accurate might the film be? So far as I can tell it does it pretty well. As with any Hollywood historical production, I assume the outline of the history is filled in with embellishment, dramatization and entertainment. To not assume so would be naive. I bring this point up as a lead in to talking about the trio of James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson. They provide much of the comic relief in the film, which surprisingly did not take me out the film, even with the core of the film being as weighty as it was. I think again this all goes back to Spielberg’s ability to deliver the goods of the emotion and importance of such an historic event. He combines the real with the real, the heft with the light and he does it is great balance. I can only assume there were funny people in 1865 too.
If I may, I will comment on a few things I felt could have been different. Sally Field has not really been relevant in cinema for a few years now, and casting her did seem strange to me. She could be a perfect Mary Todd, and she doesn’t do a bad job here, but I did’t get a great performance, and is was a bit strange seeing her again. That sounds like I don’t like her; I do like her, her performance here was just not up to snuff with the others. Which leads me to be able to talk about Tommy Lee Jones, who is one of the joys of the film for me. I love watching that man act and I think he has all the talent in the world. He really pulls off another great performance. If I could change one thing about the film overall, it would have to be the ending. Sadly, we all know how the film ends. As a result I feel Spielberg should have cut the last 5-10 minutes of the film and it would have been more effective, though I also understand why he ran it that long anyway. A great film about one of the most important moments in United States history.