Steven Spielberg took such a long road towards Lincoln that he lost his leading actor and it once seemed as if the film might never get made. The long-attached Liam Neeson was forced to bow out when Spielberg was finally ready to tackle the life of our sixteenth President, resulting in the unlikely choice of actor Daniel Day-Lewis as his replacement. Day-Lewis not only lacked the towering presence that Neeson shared with Lincoln, but the deep and commanding voice the man was known for. Or so we thought. The actor’s meticulous research revealed that Lincoln’s voice was rather soft and gentle and he was known to be a man with a good sense of humor. He was also a manipulator, forced to play tricky political games with his rivals and critics so that the now historical 13th Amendment abolishing slavery could be passed.
The mesmerizing performance of Day-Lewis, an incredible actor and chameleon, will no doubt quell the fears of those who still feel Spielberg may have made the wrong choice and possibly secure him another Oscar nomination. In fact, Day-Lewis creates a Lincoln that is so strong, admirable, commanding and yet gentle, that he may become the first to win three Academy Awards for Best Actor.
Rather than fashion your traditional bio-pic, Spielberg has chosen to focus on the last four months of Lincoln’s life, using Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln as his source material. The Civil War is in its final days, and though Spielberg briefly shows battlefield violence only in the film’s opening moments, the impact of the conflict is felt by all throughout the course of the story. The effects of the war are especially evident on the face of Lincoln himself, who at one point in the film, is told by General Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) that he looks as if he’s aged ten years within one.
Lincoln was an arbitrator who carefully examined both sides of every issue. It is perfectly clear to him that the war must end and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery is the country’s best chance to do so. Having signed the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier in 1863, and with the 13th Amendment already pushed through the Senate, Lincoln enlists his trusted advisers, Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and mentor and Republican party founder Francis Preston Blair (Hal Halbrook), to help him get the law signed before the House of Representatives by February 1. When Blair is sent to meet with the South in bringing about a cessation of hostilities, the eagerness of the Confederate officials, led by Alexander Stevens (Jackie Earl Haley), to reach an agreement puts Lincoln’s plan in jeopardy. If word spreads through Washington that representatives for the Confederates are looking to peacefully end the war, the 13th Amendment is as good as dead.
Spielberg’s film illustrates the dirty side of politics, where men who operated within the corridors of power engaged in under-the-table deals, blackmail and bribery, often making the law work to their advantage, while simultaneously in danger of breaking it. Lincoln himself is shown to be no stranger to this and through Seward, he indirectly employs a trio of shady underlings (James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes) to use such tactics to gather the votes he needs to pass the bill. Adding fuel to Lincoln’s campaign is Thaddeus Stevens (a very animated, yet powerful Tommy Lee Jones), one of the most powerful members of the House of Representatives, who opposed slavery for most of his life. Jones is brilliant in one scene where his rivals question whether he supports the bill as a means to end the war or a ploy to make black slaves the equals of white men. Through a careful choice of words, he turns the tables on them, sacrificing his pride, yet doing so for the greater good. Though various aspects of Stevens’ personal life have been the subject of many debates for decades, they are appropriately explored with warmth and intelligence late in the film.
Lincoln wouldn’t work if the film focused solely on his struggle to get the 13th Amendment passed. The untimely death of his third son “Willie”, three years earlier, is still an open wound for the family, including youngest son Tad (Gulliver McGrath). Oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) struggles with his father’s refusal to let him join the military and his own personal guilt that his peers are dying on the front lines, while wife Mary (Sally Field) still copes with losing two sons, yet must reserve her emotions for the sake of appearances. Originally cast opposite Neeson, Field nearly lost the role when Spielberg initially felt she was too old to play Mary, since she is ten years older than Day-Lewis and the first lady was actually nine years Lincoln’s junior. Like Day-Lewis, she fully embodies her role, playing an emotionally weak and tired old soul behind closed doors and a rock of confidence in public, as the wife of the most powerful man in the world. Field and Day-Lewis share a number of mesmerizing scenes where they either argue or have intimate conversations and present their Lincoln and Mary as a weary couple who still persevere in the face of adversity because have been through thick and thin together.
With a running time of 150 minutes, there is quite a lot within Lincoln to absorb in one viewing. Those not politically savvy need not worry; the incredibly passionate performances are the lifeblood of the story, supported by Janusz Kaminski’s beautiful cinematography and John Williams’ subtle musical score. There’s a great deal of information and even sub-plots to grasp, but even a political novice will understand that the politics of the past greatly resemble those of the present. Spielberg along with Tony Kushner’s screenplay are wise enough to understand that what makes a story like this captivating are the people, not the politics. Lincoln was an incredibly complex man, and Day-Lewis’ unforgettable interpretation of him is a multi-layered performance, demonstrating what a human and often flawed man he was.