It could have been a heavy, stuffy biopic that attempted to cram Abraham Lincoln’s entire life story into a few hours. That, however, is not the movie that Steven Spielberg made. Spielberg chose to focus on only the last four months of Lincoln’s life, during which the 13th Amendment was passed and the Civil War came to an end.
I’m sure by now you’ve heard how spectacular and iconic Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln is. Believe the hype. Day-Lewis is so phenomenal that you forget that you’re watching someone acting. He disappears into the character. He is method acting at its very best. Day-Lewis brings a lightness to the role that really emphasizes that this man, although he was “cloaked in power,” as Lincoln says at one point in the film, was an ordinary fellow. His interactions with his young son, Tad, played by Gulliver McGrath, and his penchant for telling long anecdotal stories give Lincoln, as a character, more depth and humanity.
While Day-Lewis is inarguably the driving force of the film, he is aided by an amazing supporting cast led by veteran actors Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln. Field is as good as she’s ever been playing Mrs. Lincoln, a woman who is still riddled with grief over the death of one of her sons.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is perfectly cast as Lincoln’s oldest son, Robert, a law student who is itching to enlist in the Union army. Gordon-Levitt doesn’t have much screen time but the scenes he’s in pack a punch. The scene between Robert and his father outside of a military hospital was one that I found particularly moving.
There are a number of other small parts played by fantastic actors. David Strathairn’s portrayal of Secretary of State, William Seward, has a steadiness to it that makes you understand why Lincoln would put so much faith in him. James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson offer a splendid comedic relief playing three lobbyists trying to persuade congressmen to vote in favor of the amendment.
The screenplay, written by Tony Kushner, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his play “Angels in America”, is poignant and honest. There are moments when Kushner could have brushed over details and simply made this film a syrupy tribute to a beloved president, like when Lincoln intentionally postpones peace negotiations with the Confederacy in order to get the 13th Amendment passed. The man was flawed, but the film does not shy away from that fact – it embraces it.
Spielberg seems to have thrown everything he’s got into this movie. His last picture, “War Horse,” had a quiet brilliance to it, but it was largely forgotten about when awards season came. With “Lincoln,” Spielberg is demanding attention. This film is sprawling, captivating and extremely relevant.
President Obama watched a private screening of the film at the White House and I completely understand why. The film draws a very timely parallel – a country divided amidst changing times. Sound familiar?
“Lincoln” is a film for the ages.
So, skip “Breaking Dawn” and go see one of the best movies of the year.