What makes a hero? Spielberg poses the question masterfully in Lincoln, which offers viewers not only a portrait of the man, but of the times – his and ours. Exquisite performances from Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones and a pitch-perfect supporting cast levitate on Tony Kushner’s sublime script. Spielberg’s direction is flawless. More than a biopic, Lincoln is a story of the past in conflict with the future, right in conflict with wrong, and the necessity to follow one’s “true north”. The work of great artists, this film inspires. See it tonight.
The film opens at the height of the Civil War. The country’s been bled dry. Everyone, North and South, wants peace more than anything else – everyone except President Lincoln. He wants passage of the 13th Amendment, the abolition of slavery, even if he has to drag out the war to achieve it. A volatile political machine, the war’s ever rising human cost, and increasing criticism of Lincoln’s use of executive privilege frame his small window of opportunity. To get the necessary support for his “radical” proposition, Lincoln and his cohort employ unconventional, borderline illegal tactics to recruit those in the House whose moral compass is not enough incentive. Possessed by a deep knowing of the import of his task, a visionary Lincoln leads a cast of players into history, some of whose sacrifice and heroism nearly equal his own.
The performances in Lincoln are spectacular. Daniel Day Lewis is honestly Abe, capturing his imposing presence, brilliant oratory, and an ample dose of his storied wit. Moreover, he carries in his performance the gravitas that defined the man himself, the product of a life beset by tragedy and marked by purpose. Sally Field offers a career performance as Mary Todd Lincoln, who, even in her weakness, manages to contend with and at times overpower Lincoln despite debilitating psychological problems and physical pain. Tommy Lee Jones is unforgettable as senior statesman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who, in order to secure passage of the 13th Amendment, denounces his inner convictions and life’s work when he declares on the House floor that he does not believe in total equality, only equality before the law. Weathered, weary, and with a permanent limp, audiences will fall in love with him. Audiences will fall in love with all of the performances, which include exemplary turns by James Spader, Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
The dialogue in the film is priceless. Moviegoers will be as thrilled as they are unprepared. The fiery debates in the House of Representatives soar as the statesmen play with language like kids in a canonical candy store — none better than Jones’ Stevens, whose sharp delivery will have viewers in the aisles, if not up on their feet. Accented by the often funny, sometimes poignant, and always instructive stories Lincoln uses in response to everything, the film proves as much a literary achievement as a cinematic one.
Visually speaking, Lincoln is a memorial to movie-going. From sweeping scenes of war and its consequences to meaningful moments exploring Lincoln’s gait or the weathered terrain of Thaddeus Stevens’ face, Spielberg reminds us of what movies offer that no other form of entertainment does – life, larger.
Last but not least, Lincoln’s 1860s America is a character in itself. Viewers will be rapt by it and those looking for historical accuracy will have little to no complaint. Familiar yet unfamiliar, this primitive version of our society is a place where democracy is still “an experiment”, laws are more loosely defined, and people still fight and die for freedom. The depiction of it is a rare treat of exceptionally thorough artistry. The place is both magical and real.
The film’s overall success is in how it blends every element to give the historical subject matter contemporary style and relevance. Viewers are sure to take away something they can use for the here and now, and any number of moments in the film can be remembered forever. Beautiful to watch. Beautiful to listen to. Lincoln is a national treasure.