Perhaps the greatest challenge for Steven Spielberg in making “Lincoln” is casting the lead role. Who could portray such an iconic figure: brilliant, honest, compassionate, tragic Civil War president? Everyone knows Abraham Lincoln from the numerous photographs and likenesses, and from the countless books and accounts of his life. Breathing life and humanity into this great historical figure who we all think we know is a huge challenge for any actor.
Spielberg’s choice of the famed British actor Daniel Day-Lewis was no doubt a surprise to many. But the great actor rises to the challenge to bring the great president to life. Day-Lewis brings humanity to Lincoln: He chats amiably with black and white Union troops in the opening scene. He loves to tell stories and jokes. Lincoln argues with his wife, dotes on his young son Tad, and, in a scene which drew gasps from the audience, slaps his oldest son Robert. Lincoln grieves the dead and grows weary from the personal toll of the war. He’s also a master politician.
Daniel Day-Lewis gives a magnificent performance, and should receive his third Oscar. Abraham Lincoln is acknowledged by many to be the greatest American President. The greatest accomplishment of Spielberg, Day-Lewis (along with an exceptional cast) and screenwriter Tony Kushner is to humanize this iconic figure.
Most of “Lincoln” takes place in January 1865. Lincoln has been re-elected to a second term. Most believe the long, bloody war is coming to a close. Lincoln chooses this moment to push the House of Representatives to ratify the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery forever in the United States. The amendment has already passed the Senate. Lincoln reasons that the House must pass the amendment by the end of the month. At the same time, a delegation from the Confederacy wants to negotiate peace. Lincoln’s fear is that congressmen from returning Southern states would block the passage of the amendment. Lincoln sees the amendment as a moral imperative. Without abolition, the Civil War with its enormous casualties would have been in vain.
Unless you are well-versed in the politics of the day, it’s easy to get a little lost in the politics and historical figures of the era. Kushner’s screenplay is based in large part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 700-page book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” Kushner’s enormous challenge in the adaptation was to make all this understandable to the viewers who are not history majors, without making the movie six hours long, or on the other hand, over-simplifying the issues. I think Kushner did the best he could to condense the complex material and personalities. As necessary as the political scenes are, they’re demanding of the viewer’s attention. I look forward to release of “Lincoln” on DVD, so I’ll be able to rewind and study some of these scenes.
Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln, another complex figure. She is driven to the depths of grief by their son’s death, yet she is a strong woman who asks to be called “Madame President” at a reception. Still she longs for the burden of war and office to be over so that they can return to a simpler life. As good as Field is as an actress, I couldn’t help but think that she was too old to play a woman who has a young son playing in the White House. Clearly the Lincolns loved each other, although with so many pressures upon them, their relationship was not an easy one.
As expected, every production detail is first-rate: sets, costumes, photography, another great John Williams score. Every detail of the movie was painstakingly researched, including Lincoln’s high-pitched voice. Tommy Lee Jones, as abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, heads a large, very impressive supporting cast.
It’s the human moments of “Lincoln” that touched me most, from the casual conversations, telling stories in the telegraph room, to playing with his son Tad, and to witness his reaction after seeing firsthand the devastation of Petersburg, Virginia. As necessary as the political maneuvering is to the plot, these are the scenes that I most appreciated. Even though I didn’t find it as emotionally moving as Spielberg’s masterpieces “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan,” “Lincoln” is a certainly a worthy tribute to the great, tragic president. I’m sure Lincoln will become a classic, and give generations to come a glimpse into that a man who was both a great human being and outstanding political leader.
Tom Condon, OP