Mary Todd Lincoln: Sally Field
William Seward: David Strathairn
Robert Lincoln: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
W.N. Bilbo: James Spader
Preston Blair: Hal Holbrook
Thaddeus Stevens: Tommy Lee Jones
Fernando Wood: Lee Pace
George Pendleton: Peter McRobbie
Alexander Stephens: Jackie Earle Haley
Ulysses S. Grant: Jared Harris
DreamWorks, 20th Century Fox, Reliance Entertainment and Touchstone Pictures presents a film directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner. Based in part on the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Running time: 150 min. Rated PG-13 (for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language).
The political process is struggle. It’s really amazing we’ve ever been able to accomplish anything in this democracy. If Steven Spielberg’s latest film “Lincoln” has anything to teach us other than some history, it’s that however inefficient we feel our government is today, it is only a reflection of what it has always been.
“Lincoln” is a very focused film, eschewing the typical bio pic format of exploring the entire life of an historical figure and instead focusing on one of our 16th president’s major achievements—the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The issue of slavery had been a point of contention since the penning of the Declaration of Independence. Having led our fledgling nation to war with itself, Lincoln is bound and determined to put the issue to rest before the end of The Civil War. With the war winding down in early 1865, as the Confederacy was running short on supplies and able bodies, President Lincoln was forced to make some controversial decisions in order to keep his promise of the Emancipation Proclamation from two years prior to his reelection.
Director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner take a microscope to the political process of passing the somewhat unpopular resolution of abolishing slavery here. They open their picture with a horrific scene of the violence still raging on in a waning war. They want to show us how broken our country was with a sea of soldiers waging an animalistic battle in which no higher purpose than survival is in the immediate thoughts of the men involved.
Quickly, the filmmakers switch to a scene where two black Union soldiers have the unique opportunity to address the President directly at a camp where the President is visiting the troops. One of the soldiers is very grateful for what the President is trying to do, the other puts their struggle in more political terms for the President, which takes into account that the government is still making compromises of the issues of equality, which for the black man even today still equal inequality. This illustrates the complexity of the issue the President has to face and the obstacle course he will have to run in order to get just a fraction of what is right passed for the country.
The rest of the film is a chess match between three groups of players, Lincoln’s progressive Republicans, the more extreme abolitionists, and the conservative Southern-influenced Democrats. Lincoln knows that if the war ends he loses all his leverage to get the amendment passed. The less extreme Republicans want to begin peace talks with the Confederacy to keep their promises to their constituents to end the war. The Democrats are blocking the two-thirds majority vote needed to pass the resolution. Lincoln believes the Democrats that lost their seats in the election can be convinced to vote for abolition before their terms end. The labels have switched sides, but it all sounds awfully familiar to me.
All of that is better witnessed than described. What demands great attention is the amazing performances by Spielberg’s cast. Daniel Day-Lewis has made a career of redefining himself with each and every performance he gives. Try to compare the men he plays in movies like “My Left Foot” and “There Will Be Blood”. They don’t compare. Here he goes beyond his own redefinition and also redefines Abraham Lincoln. His Lincoln is like no other version of the man seen on screen before. He speaks in a high-pitched tone, while most before him gave his voice a strong bass tone. Research suggests Day-Lewis has his tone correct.
Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is a man possessed with his mission. Like some of the darker heroes typically found in films and literature, his Lincoln isn’t above some less noble tactics to achieve his goals. His motives, however, never seem less than pure. He knows he has one chance to take this first step toward national righteousness.
Even his family cannot distract him from his goals. Sally Field’s portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln also bucks some of the more perfect notions we might have of this First Lady. She teeters on the brink of mental breakdown about keeping their son Robert out of the war. Robert, as played here by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, cannot bear to stand idly by just because he’s the President’s son while so many others do their duty. Lincoln’s protests against his desire to enlist seems unreasonable until we realize that it is all for the love of his wife to protect her sanity. The only person Lincoln seems willing to drop being a politician for is their boy Tad, who lived with them in the White House. Their two sons who died previously are barely referenced, but the memory of their boy Willie, who died in Lincoln’s first term, seems to hang between Abe and Mary in every scene they have together.
With a film this epic in historical scope, the casting hardly ends with the leads. Tommy Lee Jones seems a perfect choice to portray the leader of the Republican abolitionists, Thaddeus Stevens. His craggy exterior and curmudgeonly persona convey Steven’s resolve for true equality between all. This was a point of contention even for the less extreme Republicans. Spielberg doesn’t reveal until the very end of the film one of the primary reasons Stevens was so adamant about absolute abolition, although it was a fact that was common knowledge at the time.
Other important casting choices are David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Lincoln’s voice of reason. James Spader takes a gruff turn as W.N. Bilbo, a lobbyist who is hired to convince the unseated Democrats to vote for abolition in turn for political favors. Hal Holbrook lends his experience to the more conservative side of the Republican Party as Francis Preston Blair. And, Jared Harris is so good in his few scenes as Union Army Commander Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant that I want to see a bio pic on Grant next with Harris reprising his role.