(2012) Biographical Drama (DreamWorks) Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, Gloria Reuben. Directed by Steven Spielberg
Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, author of the Gettysburg Address and for all intents and purposes, Savior of a Nation, is revered beyond any President this nation has ever known. He is considered by many to be the greatest President in the history of our nation; his face is one of four that adorns Mt. Rushmore and along with Washington is a literal icon of American history.
But with all the praise heaped upon him, the hero worship accorded him, the legendary status given him, we sometimes forget – in fact more than sometimes – that he was a man. In this latest film from Steven Spielberg nearly a dozen years in the making, we are presented with not only President Lincoln but with Abraham Lincoln – father, husband, raconteur, wily politician, lawyer and human being.
We pick up the story as Lincoln (Day-Lewis) is trying to get the13th Amendment passed. This constitutional amendment would ban slavery. The war is in its waning days and he is concerned that his Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t stand legal challenge which would surely come with the South rejoining the union which is what is expected will happen. He is concerned that will put the country back into the same position twenty years hence and a second civil war would surely destroy the Union utterly forever.
His Secretary of State William Seward (Strathairn) is in agreement and knows that once the South sues for peace which could happen at any time, the Amendment will never pass the fractious House of Representatives (the Amendment had already passed the Senate) and is 20 votes shy of the two thirds majority that is required. The time to get those votes is now; the House is in a lame duck situation with plenty of Democrats being shown the door in recent elections; not having to worry about re-election they could vote their conscience or on a baser level, these men would soon be needing jobs and could be persuaded to see reason with the right offer.
To that end Seward has employed William Bilbo (Spader), a lobbyist from New York whose chicanery is legendary. In the meantime, Lincoln is preparing for his inauguration and welcoming his son Robert (Gordon-Levitt) home from college. Robert is keen on joining the military and doing his duty to his country which Lincoln’s wife Mary (Field) is utterly against; she has already lost one son (in childhood to typhus) and will not lose another. Losing the first one drove her to the point of madness.
Opposing the bill are crafty politician George Pendleton (McRobbie) and firebrand orator Fernando Wood (Pace) from the Democratic side. Thaddeus Stevens (Jones) of Pennsylvania supports it, and is the target of the Democrats who wish the bill to fail. In the meantime, Francis Preston Blair (Holbrook) who founded the Republican party and whose influence can insure all the Republican representatives toe the line, is eager to go down to Richmond and negotiate a peace. Lincoln gives him permission to do so in return for his support.
Blair is in fact successful, getting the Confederacy to send a trio of peace negotiators led by Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens (Haley) but Lincoln orders them kept out of Washington in order to allow the Amendment to pass which it would not if the Congressmen knew that peace negotiations were underway. The clock is ticking and nothing less than the future of the Union is at stake. What will Lincoln do to ensure that future is slavery free?
As it turns out, a whole lot. I have to admit that I was impressed with Lincoln’s political acumen which I didn’t know much about. He was often underestimated by his contemporaries who thought him an uneducated rube from the sticks but in fact even if he was self-educated he was shrewd and had the foresight to understand that a slave economy was a limited economy and that the U.S. would never be able to grow as a nation with one in place. Of course, he also recognized the immorality of it.
But what the movie achieves which to me is even greater is that it brings Lincoln into focus as a man. Not only does Spielberg accomplish this by creating an authentic atmosphere for the tale to be told within, but to allow Day-Lewis – one of the greatest actors of our time – to inhabit the role. I was surprised at the high-pitched voice Day-Lewis uses for Lincoln but contemporary accounts confirm that the Great Emanciptor’s voice was in fact not the sonorous baritone we have come to associate with it. It was more of a tenor.
You get the compassion of the man, but also the frustrations he suffered as both a man – the loss of his son was a blow he never really recovered from – and as a politician. He felt every one of the hundreds of thousands of deaths that occurred during the war keenly and bore their weight on his shoulders. Lincoln has been characterized as an awkward gangly man and Day-Lewis gets the posture exactly. The performance is so massive, so overpowering that you can’t help but feel that this is going to be accorded an Oscar nomination as Denzel Washington’s performance in Flight will be as well. Both performances could easily win it, with the slight nod going to Day-Lewis.
Field also gives a performance that will be given consideration come Oscar time. Mary Todd Lincoln is often characterized as someone whose sanity was on the brink (she would eventually be committed to the sanitarium years after her husband’s assassination) but here she is strong and determined, giving Thaddeus Stevens an earful at a White House function. She is a First Lady without a doubt, one who not only saved the White House from dilapidation but defended her husband like lioness.
There are some great supporting performances here as well, including Jones, Strathairn, Gordon-Levitt and Holbrook at the fore. While I learned a great deal about Lincoln the man, Lincoln the film never fails to be entertaining. It is a bit long and in places long-winded but you wind up feeling like you know the 16th President a little bit better and admiring him a little bit more. This country could use another President like him and sadly, it will be a long time if ever that we get one.
REASONS TO GO: Humanizes an icon. Another Oscar-caliber performance by Day-Lewis (and Field as well). Informative and entertaining.
REASONS TO STAY: You know how the story ends.
FAMILY VALUES: There are images of the carnage of war and the brutality of slavery. There’s also some brief strong language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Spielberg spent twelve years (off and on) researching the movie. He recreated Lincoln’s executive mansion office precisely down to the wallpaper and books. The ticking of the pocket watch is Lincoln’s actual watch taken from the Lincoln Historical society – it was the watch he had with him the night of his assassination.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/27/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100. The reviews are extremely positive.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 12 Days
CIVIL WAR LOVERS: .A nice re-creation of the bombardment of Wilmington and the battle thereafter. Also a look at the waning days of the war which are rarely captured in Hollywood.
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Fifth Quarter
The fundamental concern of Lincoln is the passage of the 13th Amendment, and Lincoln’s struggles to make that passage happen in the House of Representatives. This is, in other words, partly a courtroom drama and partly a re-incarnation of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And there is great drama to be found in the floor-fights and speeches which led to the 13th Amendment’s adoption on January 31, 1865. David Straithern, who unquestioningly deserves a Best Supporting Oscar for his depiction of William Seward, conducts the back-room log-rolling necessary to assemble the requisite two-thirds majority, seconded by Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens (whose rapid-fire verbal savagery still manages to remind me more of Agent K than the Old Commoner). The bad guys appear in the form of George Hunt Pendleton (the disappointed Democratic nominee for vice-president in 1864) and Fernando Wood, the sleazy New York Democrat. Happily, when the final vote is taken, the bad guys lose. Spielberg invents a clever cut-away moment for the amendment’s roll-call vote: Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax is in the process of announcing the amendment’s passage when the camera blinks onto Lincoln, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, hearing bells and artillery salutes beginning to go off.