Steven Spielberg is often considered to be one of America’s great directors. Over several decades of work, Spielberg has found success both commercially and critically for his films. Therefore, it seems only fitting that Spielberg be the director to release a film about one of America’s most beloved figures: Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln documents the last months of Lincoln’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) life as he desperately tries to pass the 13th Amendment—which abolished slavery—while also dealing with personal issues, the greatest being his strained relationship with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field).
The film also boasts a phenomenal supporting cast, with Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathaim) and Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) being the most interesting characters to watch when Lincoln is off-screen.
Spielberg is loyal to his protagonist, never straying too far from Lincoln. However, this means that Lincoln is not some sweeping, Civil War drama but a character study of our 16th president. This, in many ways, is the most admirable part of Spielberg’s film.
Lincoln reveals the man behind the podium, the man behind some of our nation’s most memorable and compelling words. Day-Lewis’ portrayal of the president (a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, if not the win) runs counter to Lincoln’s near apotheosis in history’s eyes.
In the first scene, we see Lincoln stand and immediately become much larger than all the other men around him—yet this cinematic technique never returns. Instead, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln remains hunched for the film’s duration. Spielberg shoots him at various angles but always with his head bent, as if the president were in mourning or sorrowful prayer.
Lincoln’s voice is not the booming baritone of a practiced orator, either. It is often tremulous, except during key moments where the true power of Lincoln’s words shines through. But this seems to be Lincoln’s point: The 16th president was a man, and our expectations and assumptions perhaps deserve to be challenged.
There is also the matter of Lincoln’s personality and his interactions with the other characters. Throughout the film, Day-Lewis grants Lincoln moments of levity when he stops to tell a humorous story to those willing to listen. Spielberg is taking a risk here, but it pays off by allotting an important aspect of humanity to a historical figure whose humanity at times seems to be forgotten.
The scenes that feature Lincoln among his family or the people are by far the most powerful. When Lincoln fights with Mary over a previous argument in which he said he would commit her to an asylum, the audience witnesses the cost of grief over the couple’s lost child. Lincoln cannot remain tangled in sadness as he is a public figure—a reality Mary cannot come to terms with.
Tad (Gulliver McGrath), Lincoln’s youngest son, also appears often in the film, serving as his father’s source of comfort. That Spielberg shows Lincoln playing with Tad in the middle of the 13th Amendment’s ratification speaks to the character the film is attempting to demonstrate.
Even while one of his great achievements is taking place, he is not present at the ratification, but instead prefers to enjoy a moment of peace with his son.
Lincoln’s scenes with Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), his eldest son, also provide the film with some of its most moving moments. When Lincoln and Robert visit a soldiers’ hospital, Robert’s desire to join the army leads Lincoln to voice his concern, providing the audience with further proof of the importance of parenthood to the president.
Lincoln is not short on political scenes or closed-door meetings of the cabinet; however, while these scenes are intriguing, they don’t display the character of Lincoln as anything other than a historical figure. We need to be reminded of Lincoln the man: flawed, but great nonetheless.
To Spielberg’s credit, his film doesn’t gloss over the corruption Lincoln had to turn to in order to garner the necessary votes for the 13th Amendment. This detail allows for the dismantling of the assumed absolute binary of good-and-evil or right-and-wrong in history. Even Lincoln had to disobey the law in order to move the country forward.
However, in every scene Lincoln is in, there is little room for others. But it would be difficult to have America’s director sideline America’s hero, even for a moment.
Day-Lewis’ performance accomplishes a near impossibility—his Lincoln is both new and satisfying.
Lincoln is Spielberg’s return to great film. And judging by his previous success, his film’s interpretation of our 16th president is sure to inspire a new generation to be just as awed by this great man as generations past.