Directed By: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn
Trivia: Sally Field gained 25 pounds in order to more accurately portray Mrs. Lincoln
I’ve seen pictures of Abraham Lincoln, but aside from this basic knowledge of what he looked like, I know practically nothing about the man. What did his voice sound like? How often did he smile (if at all)? How did he interact with others? Still, in spite of my ignorance on the matter, I can’t shake the feeling that Daniel Day-Lewis, who portrays the 16th President in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln, absolutely nailed it, delivering a performance for the ages that convincingly brings one of the country’s most important historical figures to life.
The year is 1865. Having already signed the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier, thus freeing the slaves, President Abraham Lincoln (Day-Lewis) now needs a Constitutional amendment passed that will forever abolish slavery in the United States of America. What’s more, it must pass before the end of the Civil War, which, after four bloody years, is now in its final stages. Naturally, the bill will have its opponents, most of whom belong to the rival Democratic party, but Lincoln insists that the votes necessary for passage be secured, and the sooner the better. After gaining the support of fellow Republican (and political adversary) Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), an advocate of equal rights for all, Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) enlist the help of William M. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes), and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), three operatives hired to convince the undecided members of the Senate to vote in favor of the Amendment. While dealing with the pressures of this situation, Lincoln must also see to the health of his wife Mary (Sally Field), who, as a result of the death of their young son a few years earlier, has been battling mental illness; as well as the request of his oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who has asked that he be allowed to join the Union Army and participate in the fighting.
From the film’s opening scene, when he’s talking with Union soldiers about their army experiences, Daniel Day-Lewis is Abraham Lincoln. With his quiet, often reflective demeanor and a story at the ready for every situation, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln may not always look like a President (years of war and political wrangling have clearly taken their toll) or act like one (he allows his young son Tad, played by Gulliver McGrath, to run rampant through the halls of the White House, and occasionally takes time out of his busy schedule to play with the boy), but at that moment in history, Abraham Lincoln was the right man for the job, unwavering in his commitment to get the 13th Amendment ratified. He patiently listens to those who oppose him, smiles as longtime allies tell him the amendment is destined to fail, yet he never backs down. We feel his frustration when, late in the movie, he bangs his fist on a table, telling his subordinates, in no uncertain terms, that failure is not an option, and we share his anxiety as he argues with his wife about Robert’s desire to join the army, defending his son’s decision while, at the same time, realizing any tragedy that may befall him will send Mary spiraling into a depression from which she might never recover. With his brilliant performance, Day-Lewis conveys all this, and much more besides.
There are other reasons to watch Lincoln: Tommy Lee Jones is superb as the cantankerous Stevens; as is Sally Field, who brings humanity to a woman who, at times, is the biggest thorn in her husband’s side. Also strong (in smaller roles) are Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, who travels north to talk peace with Lincoln, and Jared Harris as General Ulysses S. Grant. Performances aside, the movie looks wonderful, with Spielberg and his crew recreating the time period in amazing detail, and the debates that rage through Congress as the bill is discussed will have you on the edge of your seat.
But if there’s one thing you’ll take away from the experience of viewing Lincoln, it’s Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance, which provides us with as comprehensive a portrait of the man as we’re ever going to get.