It’s been a long wait, but finally, Lincoln is here. It was all the way back in 1999 that Steven Spielberg learned of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s plan to write a book about Abraham Lincoln and his “team of rivals” – that is, the members of his cabinet, which included three men who ran against him in the 1860 presidential election. Spielberg instantly secured the rights to the book, and now – more than decade after the notion to make this movie first entered his head – Lincoln is here for us to see.
Rather than giving us a broad portrait of Mr. Lincoln’s entire life, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner instead focus on the last four months of the man’s life, as he sought to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution – thereby granting black Americans equal representation before the law – while tentatively working out an end to the by then four-year-long American Civil War. The film does not focus entirely on Lincoln, however, but mostly builds a portrait of the man through his interactions with and the lives of several other people around him: Secretary of State William Seward, abolitionist Senator Thaddeus Stevens, tormented wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and his somewhat estranged, eldest son, Robert, among others.
What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is a history lesson of the first order, perhaps for no better reason than that it exposes just how human these iconic historical figures – who by now have gained a time-worn look of characterless stoicism – truly were. It is also a fascinating and deeply intelligent movie, depicting the politics and atmosphere of a key moment in this nation’s history with dynamic, engaging, and surprisingly entertaining exchanges between players – an exceptionally well-written battle ground for its supremely talented cast.
In these ways, Lincoln is essentially a movie which belongs to its actors. Daniel Day-Lewis is brilliant in the titular role of our Sixteenth President; his humor, his grace, his majesty and his humility come through in a crystal-clear depiction, presenting Day-Lewis as one of the most capable actors working in the business today, if there was any doubt remaining as to that point. A better performance could not have been asked for.
Tommy Lee Jones is equally notable for his depiction of Senator Thaddeus Stevens, whose hard-boiled demeanor yet impassioned fight for universal equality strikes a chord with modern audiences without ever feeling out of place for the time in which the story is told. Sally Field is fine as the President’s wife, riding easily through the film in a role that was simply too well-written for her to come up short with. As for the supporting cast – David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and James Spader head off an exceptional line-up of talented actors and actresses who give the film its diversity and authenticity.
The worth of Lincoln is ultimately determined through the work of these actors, and the integrity of its script. While Steven Spielberg happens to be the director of this film, it does not feel as though the movie belongs to him, as so many of his other movies do; his strong creative hand adds undeniable eloquence to several moments of quiet, but in the end, the work triumphs as a tributary portrait of a small collection of people who fought to ensure the fairness of this nation’s moral character. To that end, the credit for this film’s excellence goes to Mr. Kushner.
It is, in a way, a slightly aloof film–we as the audience seem to be peeking in on certain private and public moments which, ultimately, resulted in a major step forward in the history of this country. Lincoln is an important movie because it humanizes history; it shows us that great men and women have always been great people; and that the only way in which we as people can make things better is to fight for the change ourselves. Lincoln makes us believe again in the integrity of the human spirit. As I said, it’s been a long wait – but it’s also been well-worth waiting for.