Lincoln” stars Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, working with a screenplay by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg. All three will likely garner Oscar nominations in their respective categories: the film, which also features a strong ensemble cast, has to be the front runner for Best Picture. While not a perfect movie—whatever that may be—it’s one you should not miss.
Unlike its several predecessors, the story focuses on a short but crucial period right after Lincoln’s re-election and before his death in April, 1865. The Civil War is drawing to its end, but Lincoln sees the danger of losing the victory he had sought for years: the permanent freeing of the slaves. Seeking to pass the Thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, he plays the fierce politics of Washington with a passion and skill that his “country bumpkin” manner belies.
At the opening, he stands a few votes shy of the necessary margin. His Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), counsels him to wait until the war is over, using a stronger Republican majority to carry the day. But the President sees the danger of the Emancipation Proclamation, a wartime measure, being no longer valid, and with the South rejoining the Union, slavery returning with it.
Lincoln is being resisted not only by Democrats but by members of his own party, who see the danger of the amendment leading to actual equality—a situation fraught with uncertainty. He is also being pushed by the abolitionists, most notably firebrand Sen. Thaddeus Stevens, played with vigor by Tommy Lee Jones. And on the private side, his depressed wife, Mary (Sally Field), nags at him, holding him responsible for the death of their son Willy.
All these pressures come to bear on the President, bowed and weary from the long war. (Gen. Grant remarks that Lincoln has aged ten years in the year just past.) He is also being implored by his older son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), to let him leave college and join the Army, a move which the grieving Mary vehemently opposes. Members of his own cabinet rage at Lincoln and embarrass him.
Fully inhabiting the role, Day-Lewis gives us not just the Lincoln of our history books, but a man beset by trouble and sadness yet, miraculously, maintaining his resolve and even a sense of humor, both cornpone and scatological. More comic relief is supplied by three rascals led by one W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) who try to get the necessary votes by hook or by crook—again emphasizing Lincoln’s political savvy and humanizing him.
Still more fine actors fill minor roles, including Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, and Bruce McGill. The action, particularly the opening scene, is beautifully shot by cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and edited by Michael Kahn, recalling their collaboration on “Saving Private Ryan,” and turning what might have easily become a “talkie” movie into a visually dynamic one. Throughout, Kaminski appropriately under- and backlights the scene, lending a feel of candle or gas light. John Williams dials back his usual bombast to create and conduct a nicely modulated musical score. Finally, Rick Carter’s meticulous production design adds to the authenticity, as does a huge makeup department.
Kushner’s intelligent script—which actually deals seriously with ideas!—gives all the people behind and in front of the camera a wealth of material to work with. Some might get lost in the politics of the debate or, given the movies’ post-election timing, just want not to listen to any more political speechifying, of whatever era. I found parts of the opening and the close overly stagey, detracting from the realism the screenplay gains from working with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals.” But this is a quibble. “Lincoln” is a superb cinematic work, one which is both historically valuable and comments (a bit too clearly) on our own deeply divided nation. It’s rated “PG-13”: parents should take their teens along when they see it and discuss it with them afterwards. Both age groups would benefit.