Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's long-awaited film, could have jumped right off the front pages of today’s newspapers, for it focuses on a weary president who wants to stop infighting among Americans and congressmen more attuned to their own agendas than to the people they’ve pledged to serve.
Adapted by Tony Kushner partly from Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 biography Team of Rivals, the two-and-a-half-hour film begins in 1865 when Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is urgently trying to get the 13th Amendment passed to abolish slavery. However, the Civil War still rages on, and debate over the fact that passing the amendment may interfere with ending the war remains key among both political parties.
Some might find the first half of this movie a little tedious while it dwells more on Lincoln as a thinker imprisoned in his will to make things right for all men. Lincoln walks a lot and utters long speeches about humanity, but Day-Lewis – who at first turned down the role – captivates us as he embodies Lincoln physically, which makes it almost impossible to ignore what he’s saying and doing at the same time.
During this first hour, the story introduces several key characters who set the expectation for more. Sally Field plays Mary Todd Lincoln, and she’s every bit as unnerved and fraught with anxiety as Lincoln is not. She’s distraught about the death of their young son and in some way blames this on her husband. Field is mostly great in the role, creating the passion that befits the tragedy and only occasionally does she seem to play it over the top.
Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), rallies behind the president, along with abolitionist Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones – who creates some thunder in his character). Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Lincoln’s older son who enlists against the will of both parents, but other than that, he’s basically a face in the crowd, so anyone could have played his part.
Spielberg said he’s been thinking of doing this film since he was five years old. “I’ve always been interested in telling a story about Lincoln. He’s one of the most compelling figures in all of history and in my life,” the filmmaker declared.
Much like his other epic films about war, Spielberg paints a picture words can never portray. The scenes in Lincoln showing bodies of Union and Confederate soldiers viciously slaughtered and lying mingled together remind us of similar ones in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan.
There are several possible Oscar nominations in store for Lincoln. Strong among them are Spielberg, Day-Lewis, possibly Fields, but most assuredly for cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Amistad, Saving Private Ryan), who has shot many of Spielberg’s films. In Lincoln he transforms the screen into a troubled era that helps the audience feel every anxiety-ridden moment Lincoln is trying to escape.
Photo Credits: David James / DreamWorks / 20th Century Fox