“Lincoln” is mildly mistitled… It is not a Lincoln biopic.
Instead, the film specifically examines the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which permanently abolished slavery. Certainly Lincoln is the primary character, but the movie features an enormous cast and focuses not on the life of the man but on the action in Congress surrounding the passage of the surprisingly controversial amendment.
Regardless, Daniel Day-Lewis gives a biopic performance for the ages, completely bringing our common image of Lincoln to life. And for a movie revolving around legislative action, “Lincoln” manages to be intense, moving, spirited and surprisingly humorous.
The action of Lincoln revolves almost entirely around the highly contested, hard-fought passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude.
With a limited knowledge of history, I suppose my presumption had been that the 13th amendment would have passed with – at the least – overwhelming support, if not complete unanimity. It’s hard from the modern-day viewpoint to imagine people resisting such a fundamental right. Freedom. The abolition of slavery – now – seems like such an obvious, enlightened choice to make that its difficult to imagine how or why it might be opposed. I think the common, simplified perception is that “The North” – all of “The North” - wanted to abolish slavery. Thus, the fact that it wasn’t universally supported becomes fascinating in its own right.
One of the fundamental objections to the amendment, and one that makes a certain amount of sense (hear me out) is that certain representatives opposed abolishing slavery at that moment because doing so might prolong the war. If the Southern States knew for certain that slavery would be outlawed by the time they rejoined the Union, they might continue to fight longer, and at that point in time they were precipitously close to surrendering. With so much blood being spilled, any extension of hostilities was something to be avoided. Lincoln and his political allies knew, however, that if they didn’t pass the amendment prior to the South rejoining the country, it may not pass for years or, perhaps ever. They were having trouble getting the act passed without the Southern States voting against it. The fight for freedom needed to be finished before the fighting actually stopped.
Thus, the passage of the amendment comes equipped with a ticking clock. As the South makes peace overtures, Lincoln tries to stall and keep their attempts at parlay secret. Behind the scenes, he buys votes, calls in favors, and makes promises. His allies on the floor (notably Tommy Lee Jones in an enjoyably cantankerous turn) are forced to tone down their actual beliefs about equality in order to appear moderate to those who were racially opposed to the bill. Because of course, the finality of the war isn’t the only objection to the Amendment. There are outright racist sentiments as well. Representatives who believe and proclaim that “the Negro is inferior” or that slaves aren’t ready for freedom, that it would overwhelm them. “Lincoln” never lets us forget what exactly was at stake.
Spielberg has created a fascinating movie here. It’s a highly entertaining historical drama, peppered with a surprising amount of humor. For the most part, he keeps his heavy-handed tendencies at bay. With a few scattered exceptions, he focuses on letting the story and characters do the work, and lays off of the sweeping music, the heavy symbolism and the maudlin sentimentality. What we’re given is a solid, believable film focusing on an engrossing moment in history, re-enacted by a highly talented troupe of performers.
The cast is sprawling, yet filled with accomplished actors. Hal Holbrook, David Stathairn, Bruce McGill, Jared Harris, and Walton Goggins all show up for cameo sized appearances. James Spader and John Hawkes have more sizeable supporting roles as vote hunters. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stops by for a few pointed scenes as Robert Lincoln, in order to showcase the personal impact of the war. Given large parts and truly standing out with them are Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field. This may be one of Tommy Lee Jones’ most ornery roles (and that’s saying something), he’s great, here. And Sally Fields turns in a fiery role as Mary Todd Lincoln. She’s truly very animated as the President’s wife… alternately giving him grief and counsel as the woman behind the great man.
But the film belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis.
Day-Lewis gives us one of the most mesmerizing biopic performances ever in this film. He takes our commonly imagined Abraham Lincoln, and breathes life into him onscreen. Lincoln walks and talks, as surely as if Spielberg had gotten a time machine, à la “Bill and Ted”. Day-Lewis is as certain for an Academy Award nomination as anything can be at the 2012 Oscars, it’s a near absolute certainty. His Lincoln is a storyteller and humorist, a patient leader, but not afraid to get tough or fight dirty. He’s weary from the burdens he’s faced in office, yet determined to do the difficult things that lay ahead. It’s an absolutely captivating performance, and destined to be mentioned alongside Ben Kingsley’s Mahatma Gandhi and Jamie Foxx’s Ray Charles as one of the most incredible biopic roles of our times.
With surprising historical events, incredible performances by an “embarrassment of riches” cast, and unexpected levels of humor and charm, “Lincoln” is a very entertaining, solidly composed film. It will undoubtedly add to the already formidable legacies of both Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg.