Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is not an epic Civil War film, nor is it an in depth exploration of the sixteenth president. It is a snapshot into the last four months of Lincoln's life. It explores his greatest moment and the hallmark of his legacy, the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment and the integration of the southern states back into the union. Based on the book, A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln reveals the virtue and exceptional skill of a noble man in dark times. It shows how Lincoln was able to achieve colossal change in a country beset by turmoil and division. The film is studious, personal, focusing entirely on individuals and their efforts. I applaud Spielberg for his inner circle approach. The scale of the Civil War and its aftermath has been done ad nauseam. Here we see behind the curtains, the cajoling, arm twisting, indomitable will of a president that understood the gravity of the moment. We also see the tremendous personal struggles Lincoln had in his private life. While the weight of the country was on his shoulders, he was a caring husband and doting father, trying desperately to hold his family together.
The film begins in January of 1865 with the bloody Civil War in its final throes. Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is deeply concerned that while the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves during the war, slavery would continue if the southern states negotiated surrender. Lincoln had issued the proclamation as a sole decree based on his interpretation of presidential power. But to truly eradicate the scourge of slavery, an amendment specifically prohibiting it would have to be added to the US Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery had passed the Senate the previous year, but was soundly defeated in the House of Representatives. Lincoln won re-election and felt that he had the political power to bring the House in line. He had total Republican support, led by the uncompromising abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). The Democrats were intransigent in their opposition. Lincoln uses Secretary of State William Seward (David Straitharn) to target specific individuals in the House to change their vote. The backroom negotiations had to be done quickly. Unknown to Congress, the South had sent a delegation led by the Vice President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), to discuss terms. The southern right to continue with slavery was their goal. Democratic leaders eager to end the war would have taken any deal to stop the bloodshed.
Lincoln's political problems mirrored the struggles of his personal life. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), had been mired in depression for years after the death of her third son, William. She was very difficult to deal with, prone to wild mood swings and erratic behavior. This led to her all but ignoring her youngest son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath). Lincoln took great pains to spend time with Tad, who dressed up like a Union soldier, and had the run of the White House; much to the consternation of Lincoln's cabinet. Lincoln's familial troubles continued with his first born, Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Robert was hell bent on joining the Union army and fighting for the cause. This caused great friction between him and his father.
Spielberg's focus on the men, women, and children that defined the end of Lincoln's life is remarkable. We get to see how this man, through great difficulty, was able to build consensus while dealing with a fragile family. The film is quite intimate on screen, akin to watching an immersive play. It is dialogue heavy with Hollywood's elite character actors at their best. Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, and one of my heroes in American history is played superbly by Bruce McGill. An ardent supporter of Lincoln, he was famously annoyed by Lincoln's constant storytelling. I loved a particular scene in the war room where he storms off yelling, "He's telling another damned story!"
Lincoln rests firmly on the able shoulders of Daniel Day-Lewis. This man has no equal as an actor. His performance here is extraordinary, the stuff of legend. He gives flesh and bone to a man that has lived in text, conjecture, and a few faded photographs. Everything about the way he portrays Lincoln is nuanced and impressive. Lincoln is not played as a stentorian figure. Day-Lewis plays Lincoln as a true mid-westerner, a wry, twinkle-eyed statesman that understood how conviction and likeability could affect the hearts of men. The most powerful scenes in this film are not Lincoln the orator, but Lincoln the father and husband. He loved his children and wife tremendously. They were his anchor in a conflicted world. Day-Lewis shines like a bonfire here. Spielberg picked the most talented actor to put a face on our greatest leader. Both men deserve every accolade and award for their work on this amazing, and ever pertinent to our times, film.