Daniel Day-Lewis is the real reason to see Lincoln. He is without doubt the best actor on the planet. He doesn’t act — he becomes. All the portrayals of Lincoln before by many fine actors from Walter Huston to Henry Fonda to Brendan Fraser pale in comparison. And there have been more movies about Lincoln than any other President for good reason. He was a fascinating man in command at one of our country’s darkest times, and he was a masterful politician in every way. No wonder Spielberg decided to take a whack at telling it again. And he was smart not to do the “from the log cabin to the theater” history lesson that we have all seen before.
Spielberg’s Lincoln could’ve just as easily been called “The 13th Amendment”, though I am sure the marketing department would’ve balked at that. The story is only a snippet of Lincoln’s history, during the last year of his life when the bloody war was still raging, and he was determined to pass the 13th amendment before there was peace, so that the southern states would be forced to end slavery. Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and Doris Kearns Goodwin who wrote the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln collaborated on a very intelligent screenplay that gives you a front row seat for some intense political wrangling that will probably remind many viewers of our current dysfunctional Congress, and gives an unvarnished look at what a brilliant political animal Lincoln had to be to get anything done. (Obama hosted a cast and crew screening at the White House a few nights ago. I’d love to hear his take on it.)
Lincoln by this account was a masterful juggler. He had a crazy wife (Sally Field) at home, a son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) aching to join the army, political allies who were pushing for peace even though it would mean the certain defeat of a 13th amendment, and an overwhelming struggle with his own conscience over the idea of delaying peace, knowing that more men would die.
But Lincoln is not entirely political and serious. There are witty moments, mostly when Lincoln is telling one of his stories or in the House chambers as various congressmen insult one another. And there are some teary-eye moments, as well. The acting overall is top notch, though I felt that Daniel Day-Lewis was the only one who really seemed an embodiment of that era. Tommy Lee Jones as the bewigged Thaddeus Stevens may be the only other actor that filled the shoes of his role. And in what is probably the most unexpected character in the movie James Spader’s W.N. Bilbo, the leader of a group of men sent out to “procure” the votes Lincoln needed, is the perfect comic counter-beat. But the film is a bit long at 149 minutes, and it is somewhat slow going in the beginning. And those Spielbergian musical swells that tell you “this is important” are kind of tiresome to me. I am not jumping on the Masterpiece wagon with this one, but I think it is a very good film, mostly for Day-Lewis’s breath-taking performance. It isn’t a film for youngsters, nor for people who don’t like listening to speechifying. But for history buffs, lovers of incredible acting and people who want to go to a movie that makes you think, I would definitely recommend it.