Minutes into Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”…. it is clear this is not an ordinary biopic. Abraham Lincoln, (the uncanny Daniel Day-Lewis) casually chats with departing Union soldiers on a cold, damp January evening. Some of the soldiers are black, others are white, all are drawn to their Commander-in-Chief; he inspires while he charms, and the audience is shown the essential Lincoln. Spielberg’s film triumphs on all levels, avoiding the pitfalls of preachy biographical films, while achieving justice for historical figures portrayed by a stellar cast.
Focusing only on the tumultuous final… four months of Lincoln’s life, Tony Kushner’s script (heavily influenced by Doris Goodwin’s Team of Rivals) artfully illustrates the bitter process of pushing the 13th amendment through the House of Representatives; as well as, Lincoln’s tireless efforts to bring the War to an end. 19th century politics are on full display as Thaddeus Stevens (the scene stealing Tommy Lee Jones) wages a spirited battle with Democrats and Conservative Republicans on the House floor. If only our current Representatives were this passionate about anything. Historical perspectives are not only respected by the filmmakers, they are ingeniously integrated into the script. Suspense is not manufactured, but presented by the powerful nature of the subject matter. Kushner and Spielberg bring the complex political battle over ending slavery to life in Congress and in the smoke-filled rooms of Washington. Actors effortlessly meld into roles, many are unrecognizable (James Spader has a hilarious cameo as a political operative) with the aid of an entertaining and historically accurate script.
Daniel Day-Lewis leaves no doubt he is… the greatest living actor. His performance is nothing short of Oscar-worthy. Bringing iconic historical figures to life typically leads to posturing and overacting, but Day-Lewis’s portrayal is understated, humorous, and heartfelt. He perfectly captures the frontier wit of the country lawyer, and the keen political craftmanship that won over the famed team of rivals. Lincoln’s humor provides several laugh-out-loud moments, with Day-Lewis’s skillful delivery bringing depth to the performance. Sally Field brings genuine emotion to Mary Lincoln. The death of Willie in 1862 haunts the troubled couple, as displayed in the most heartbreaking scene. A complete portrait of Lincoln emerges and is the backbone of the film. Whenever characters, scenery, or events threaten to weigh down the story, Day-Lewis commands the screen- not in caricature- he brings Lincoln to life. This stands as the greatest historical performance since George C. Scott in “Patton.”
Historical films are often plagued by… unnecessary narration, overly ambitious scripts, and cheesy performances. Biopics fall victim to rambling storylines and politically correct history lessons. “Lincoln” is a focused and historically disciplined piece of filmmaking. Spielberg never allows the film to become a civics lesson, nor does the script preach its message. As the roll call vote is called during the climactic scene, Speaker of the House Schuyler Colfax breaks tradition and casts his vote, “This is history” he proclaims to Democratic opposition. Spielberg’s film is indeed history crafted as a political thriller that brings our most beloved President to life. The limited focus of the film could have fallen on any part of Lincoln’s presidency with the same effect. The strength of the performances and earnest telling of a pivotal moment in history make this one of the best historical films of all time. Steven Spielberg now joins Ken Burns as great chronicler of American history.