Movies: Lincoln

To most of us raised on his mythology and seeing him only in paintings or in that massive memorial in Washington, DC, Abraham Lincoln was a not-quite-real man whose goodness and virtue are without parallel. It was the stuff of old books, never quite attaining living, breathing humanity. Even the movie portrayals of him were not-quite-real, showing a man with no flaws who was, in essence, hardly human like the rest of us. Now, all that has changed.

President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) goes onto the battlefield to meet his troops where one young soldier recites the Gettysburg Address back to the president.
Photo: DreamWorks Pictures and 20th Century Fox

In his magnificent portrayal of the 16th president in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis creates a very real man who is both practical and fanciful, who is smart, witty, given to long anecdotes and who, in the end, emerges as a very real person.

There’s something a bit odd, but lovely, that this man we choose to think of as the quintessential American is best portrayed by an Irishman, but Day-Lewis makes Lincoln so real, so smart, so approachable and, most of all, so human that we believe that this is what the man was really like.

Day-Lewis employs a reedy, highish voice who uses words that are common and understandable to any listener. His Kentucky birth and Illinois youth inform his every word and speech pattern. But he is one determined man.

Lincoln opens with scenes set on the Civil War battlefield and they make the point of the awfulness of war as strongly as did the opening scene’s in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The script by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner (Angels In America) is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals. It takes place in the last months of Lincoln’s life as he fights to get the 13th Amendment ending slavery passed. He ties passage to the end of the Civil War.

The film is bursting with terrific performances. Tommy Lee Jones is Pennsylvania representative Thaddeus Stevens, a leading abolitionist who must temper his public words to reach his goal. (And if you think Stevens’ wig is funny, be aware that the real man wore a round wig so that he couldn’t err and put it on backwards.) William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State (David Strathairn) uses three shady characters (John Hawkes, James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson) to promise patronage jobs in exchange for their yea votes on the amendment.

Women, of course, played a part in Lincoln’s life. Here, his wife Mary (Sally Field) may, perhaps, be described as “nervous,” but is not the madwoman we’ve come to know through popular lore. Her maid Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) is articulate and, it seems, more observant than the woman for whom she works. Along with his wife, Lincoln’s sons Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Tad (Gulliver McGrath) give us a wrll-rounded picture of the man.

Spielberg’s direction is flawless. The conflict Lincoln faces in choosing abolition even though it may prolong the war, is clear. The business of government is shown as it is, occasionally funny, occasionally tedious, occasionally effective. The outline of the story is a familiar one to anyone who has taken a course in American history. But here it is fleshed out and made real. Adding to the reality are Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography and John Williams’ wonderful score that draws on the music of the time.

At two hours, 25 minutes, this is a long film but it is time very well spent. It could very well be a masterpiece. And those don’t come along too often.