Four score, three Oscars, and two Tony Awards finally bring Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln to our silver screens. OK, that was a bit of a stretch, but Spielberg has had this Abraham Lincoln biopic in development for quite some time. Adapting, in part, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, you would think the film covers more than it does. What we do get is an examination of Lincoln’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) passing of the Thirteenth Amendment which honestly couldn’t seem any more lively than it does right now with the election just last week resulting in the re-election of our first African American President, Barack Obama.
Lincoln opens in early January 1865, four years into the Civil War. Two African American soldiers, Private Harold Green (Colman Domingo) and Corporal Ira Clark (David Oyelowo) are having a conversation with the President after a brutal but brief war sequence in the pouring rain about what they’re really fighting for, continuing even when interrupted by two white soldiers (Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan). From here we move through the months leading up to the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment on January 31st. We see Lincoln’s personal dealings with his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field), along with trying to be the father to young Tad (Gulliver McGrath) he never was to Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), along with their grieving over passed sons William and Edward, even though Edward never seems to be mentioned. We also see just how much effort on the part of Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), Robert Latham (John Hawkes), and W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) went on behind the scenes to get the votes Lincoln needed.
All of Spielberg’s trademarks share time throughout Lincoln, and while some may have felt divided by last year’s War Horse, we’re not exactly in nearly-universally acclaimed Schindler’s List territory either. And this isn’t the first time he’s tackled U.S. racial issues either (Amistad, The Color Purple). What may come as a shock to some is the film’s humor. While the trailers and TV spots have made the film look as important as it is, random acts of hilarity abound. Thankfully, Spielberg and Kushner have found ways to show what we already know from alternate perspectives, such as the assassination at the Ford Theater. This is also thanks to Day-Lewis’s portrayal who so flawlessly dissolves himself into the role that from what we know from our history books and have ingrained of the President in our minds, you’d think there were cameras set up all the way back then. Day-Lewis’s portrayal is one for the ages and if this doesn’t snag him a Best Actor Oscar, I don’t know what will.
There are also small lines sprinkled throughout the screenplay that would seem aimed squarely at the political field of today – if it hadn’t obviously been written quite some time ago with how long a film of this magnitude is in production. Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) may get one of the most resonant lines in the film, but Spader manages to deliver the funniest. And it should come as no surprise to see everyone else (JGL, Field, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Lee Pace) all acting their butts off considering the content and the man in charge.
Just this morning I heard on the morning news that at least two states are petitioning for secession from these United States of America based on the re-election of President Obama. While the rest of us hope to see the country move ever forward, there’s always someone wanting to take more than a step back. Lincoln couldn’t have come at a more opportune time and we’ll be seeing it again come next year’s Academy Awards. However, I implore you to see the film simply to remind us of what could lie ahead. The past has a way of repeating itself, but we can stop that from happening.
Photos courtesy Touchstone Pictures