The Civil War has raged four years costing hundreds of thousands of lives. President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his advisers see the war coming to an end fairly soon but there will be more bloody battles ahead. With recent elections leaving several Democratic representatives as lame ducks, Lincoln sees this as a good time to reintroduce his proposed 13th Amendment to the constitution banning slavery. It had been defeated in the House earlier but the President believes with the election in the past, the outgoing representatives won’t have the same pressures on them to oppose the amendment. The founder of the Republican Party, Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) agrees to make sure no Republicans vote against it but demands being allowed to meet with a Confederate delegation to discuss a possible peace agreement. Lincoln relents to gain Blair’s support. Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) offers to lobby Democratic representatives in an effort to collect enough votes despite his belief the amendment should be held until after the war’s end. He employs lobbyists W.N. Bilboe (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) to offer jobs to those representatives who will be leaving Congress in exchange for their votes. The fiery congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who has been both a friend and an enemy to the President, is also gathering up as much support in the House as he can with other equally questionable methods. With all the pressure of the war and Congress, Lincoln must deal with his emotional wife Mary (Sally Field) who still grieves over the death of their son Willie. She suffers from migraine headaches and is prone to sudden bouts of anger and crying, aiming her rage at Lincoln. Oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is in law school but feels guilty about not serving in the army and is determined to enlist despite his parents’ objections.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln” is based in part on a book by presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin entitled “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” In the book Goodwin describes how Lincoln’s Cabinet was made up of men who didn’t have a problem telling the President if they believed he was wrong. There is no shortage of people speaking up forcefully and with conviction in the film as Lincoln navigates the minefield of mid-19th century American politics during the Civil War. History shows he traversed it successfully and the film is a loving and reverent examination of a unique man during a unique time.
I think it is safe to say Daniel Day-Lewis will be nominated for another Oscar for his performance as Lincoln. While none of us knows how the real person spoke or moved, I was transfixed by Lewis’ performance and truly felt like President Lincoln was being shown on the screen. It is a powerful piece of work that will give anyone else pause before they consider taking the role in the future. From the voice to the walk, Lewis becomes Lincoln in his portrayal that is far deeper than just a stovepipe hat and a beard. His gentle performance lulls the audience into thinking Lincoln was incapable of anger until he explodes with rage or annoyance over the arguments from his advisors about the end of slavery or the tongue lashing he receives from Mary. The nuance in Lewis’ acting is astonishing and will touch the heart of all who view it.
The supporting cast is also fantastic with David Strathairn, James Spader, Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field as the standouts. Field as Mary Todd Lincoln can twist a phrase of welcome into a poisonous insult and then apply enough charm to make you forget the slight. She also conveys Mary’s anguish over the death of one child and the possible loss of another should Robert join the army. Her fits of anger and wails of grief will make your skin crawl as you see this woman emotionally implode. In reality, Mrs. Lincoln is thought to have suffered from some form of mental illness and did not have an easy life after leaving Washington. Tommy Lee Jones can be just as vicious with his words as Mrs. Lincoln in his portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens. The abolitionist congressman often tangles with Lincoln and other members of the House. Stevens isn’t afraid to let his enemies know exactly what he thinks of them, even on the House floor; but his dedication to the cause of ending slavery means he must temper his opinions in a crucial speech. The pain on Jones face and the effort the character must expend to control his emotions plays out beautifully in the performance. Jones may also get nominated for an Oscar. David Strathairn plays William Seward as a wily politician who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty if it means protecting the President and getting Lincoln’s agenda put in place. There are numerous times when Seward, having just worked his magic on someone who stood in Lincoln’s way, gives that character a quick look that says “I own you.” It’s subtle but speaks volumes. While James Spader’s character is largely comic relief, he does it very well. As the lobbyist Bilboe, Spader swaggers around Washington putting job offers under the noses of congressmen opposed to the 13th Amendment. He often faces rejection and sometimes violence for his efforts but he keeps working for the cause. Spader’s confidence and charm make his roguish character one of my favorites in the film.
The movie is filled with much political debate and intrigue but it also has a great deal of humor. There are no pratfalls or giant laughs but there are small, subtle moments that will cause a chuckle. Many of these moments are when Lincoln is telling a story he uses to illuminate a point he’s making. There are several of these stories sprinkled throughout the film and they provide a deeper look into what made Lincoln the great leader he is: Lincoln could relate to every person no matter his education, wealth, color or creed. He could find a way to connect with that person and find common ground. That is a talent we sorely need in our leaders today.
“Lincoln” is rated PG-13 for intense scene of war violence, brief strong language and some images of carnage. The film opens with hand-to-hand combat between Union and Rebel soldiers with some men being stabbed by bayonets and others being held under muddy water to drown. We see fields of dead soldiers following another battle late in the film. A wheelbarrow full of severed limbs is shown being dumped in a pit behind a military hospital. Foul language is scattered and mild.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln took some actions that have ever since been debated for their constitutionality. In the film, Lincoln basically says during wartime, a president has immense power to do just about anything. Steven Spielberg also has that kind of power when he’s making a movie. He could have portrayed Lincoln as just a saint who did no wrong. Instead, he chose to show his weaknesses as well as his strengths. While the film tends to sometimes treat Lincoln as something just short of a deity, it is able to reign itself in and portray our 16th President as just a man; but an extraordinary man during a tragic time in American history.
“Lincoln” gets five guitars.
Thanksgiving week is a busy one for new films. Vote for the movie you’d like me to see and review next.
Life of Pi—The story of an Indian boy named Pi, a zookeeper's son who finds himself in the company of a wild animals after a shipwreck sends them adrift in the Pacific Ocean.
Red Dawn—America is invaded by North Korean troops and it’s up to an untrained group of teenagers and one soldier to defend their hometown.
Rise of the Guardians—When an evil spirit called Pitch becomes bent upon taking over the world by inspiring fear in the hearts of kids everywhere, a group of our greatest heroes including Santa and the Easter Bunny, band together for the first time to stop him.
Silver Linings Playbook—After spending eight months in a mental hospital, Pat is living with his parents and trying to put his life back together when he meets an equally troubled young woman who offers to help.
Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice currently in theatres.
Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.