Doris Kearns Goodwin’s award-winning and bestselling 2005 book “Team of Rivals” was an outstanding biography, dealing not just with Abraham Lincoln but the political rivals (Salmon P. Chase, Edward Stanton, William Seward) with whom he filled his cabinet. It was as if Lincoln was the manager in the baseball all-star game, but it lasted 5 years. The book’s filled with fascinating incidents and connections between characters, but would be impossible to fit within a 2 ½ hour movie. Maybe as an HBO series that lasted over several seasons, but not a stand-alone movie.
In Lincoln, Steven Spielberg and his screenwriter, Tony Kushner, don’t try squeeze everything in. Instead they focus most of the movie on one extraordinary month – January, 1865 – and use the events of that month to illustrate Lincoln’s character and the characters of the people with whom he was dealing. That month saw the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. While most people (erroneously) focus on the Emancipation Proclamation as the end of slavery, it was the 13th Amendment that actually killed the “Peculiar Institution.” The Emancipation Proclamation, which only applied to the Confederacy, was something Lincoln could do unilaterally. For the 13th Amendment, Lincoln had to make Congress accept it, after they had voted it down the year before.
As the movie opens, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is talking with some of the troops engaged in the battle for Virginia, including soldiers from a black regiment. Lincoln has won re-election but won’t be sworn in for his second term until April, as was the custom at that time. The war is grinding to a close, but it’s still grinding up men in the process. Lincoln knows that for the war to have lasting meaning, slavery has to be abolished. He turns to his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Straithairn), for help.
They arrange for a vote to be held at the end of the month. Lincoln refuses to buy votes, but he doesn’t mind using patronage in the form of government jobs. There are a number of Democrats in the lame-duck session who’ve lost their elections and will be looking for work come April. Seward assembles a team of operatives (James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawkes) to secure the necessary votes for the amendment to pass.
At the same time, Lincoln is faced with a faction in his own Republican party, led by Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), who want the war ended as soon as possible. Blair journeys to Richmond and arranges for a delegation from the Confederacy, under the leadership of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) to come to Washington to discuss surrender. Lincoln knows if the rebel states were to return to the Union before the 13th Amendment is passed, they could block it. He has General Grant (Jared Harris) slow the delegation’s progress and turns to abolitionist firebrand Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to help with the passage of the amendment. But for Stevens, the passage may come at a high price.
While the focus of the movie is narrow, it is played out on a broad canvas. Abe’s complicated relationship with his wife, Mary (Sally Field) is beautifully portrayed, along with his strained relationship with his oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and his loving one with his youngest son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath). Field gives one of her best performances in years as Mary, showing both her firebrand side as well as her fragility. One understands how Mary is shattered so completely by Abe’s assassination. This has already been a good year for Gordon-Levitt, with his appearances in The Dark Knight Rises and Looper. While Robert is a smaller role, there is a scene during a visit to a Union hospital that encapsulates the relationship between the two men beautifully. McGrath’s Tad adds heart to the story, and in the end heartbreak.
Spielberg has filled the movie with excellent actors. Besides those previously noted, you have Bruce Gill as Secretary of War Stanton and Gloria Ruben as Elizabeth Keckley. Of course, when Spielberg asks you to be in a movie, you say “yes!” as quickly as you can. Why else would you have Lukas Haas (who played the child in Witness and recently appeared in Inception) and Dane DeHaan (who starred in Chronicle this year) in the roles of First and Second White Soldiers, and David Oyelowo (who played Jacobs, the head of the lab, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) as one of the black soldiers talking with Lincoln at the beginning of the movie.
Along with the casting, the makeup, hair, and costuming are outstanding. It’s rare to find a historical movie that has done such a good job making the characters look like the actual people, even with the incidental roles. Once again, Spielberg’s long-time director of photography, Janusz Kaminski, has created a beautiful look to the movie, particularly in scenes shot at dusk that are a symphony of shadows and highlights.
But all of this would have fallen apart without Daniel Day-Lewis’s incredible embodiment of Lincoln. Physically he looks like he stepped out of a Matthew Brady photograph, but the performance goes so far beyond that. Day-Lewis’s voice crackles with a high and flat Midwestern twang (which is how contemporary records described Lincoln’s voice), rather than the sonorous “actor” voices that past performers have used for the President. Looking in his eyes, you see Lincoln’s thoughts and his history. The ballots for this year’s Oscars might as well have an X printed by Day-Lewis’s name when they’re sent out. His only real competition would be from another cast mate – John Hawkes (for his role in The Sessions)
Screenwriter Tony Kushner has worked on massive projects before. His play “Angels in America” was a 6-hour long tour de force. The script he produced for Lincoln is a diamond – compact and precious, and with so many facets of the Lincoln’s character, and the characters surrounding him, all shining brilliantly. Spielberg makes the final vote an incredible moment of suspense, even though it’s been in history books for a century and a half. The movie does jump forward to portray the end of the war, shown in a wordless scene of Lee and Grant parting after the surrender at Appomattox. Spielberg uses a camera like an artist’s brush; words are often superfluous in scenes he shoots, because the pictures are already saying so much. This is another triumph for him, and a gift to movie lovers and history lovers alike.