At the start of Lincoln, Honest Abe is in his second term as president of the United States, a time when those states are anything but united. The Civil War has been raging on, and everyone is hoping it will soon come to an end. At the same time, Lincoln sees the need to pass the 13th Amendment before the war ends to ensure that slavery is abolished. The earlier Emancipation Proclamation was limited and could be seen as a temporary wartime measure that might be overturned when the slave-dependent South was back in the legislature. Time is running out.
The movie Lincoln, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s successful book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, portrays the desperate maneuvering that was required to bring a divided House of Representatives to a majority vote, passing the amendment. This isn’t a movie about the war itself; it is about the politics going on during the war.
Daniel Day-Lewis is wonderful, disappearing into the title role with the same ease as he has in other roles. His take on the eccentricities of Lincoln’s character endears Lincoln to viewers in the same way that he must have endeared himself to the masses in his time. Self-deprecating and gentle, he is also intelligent and cunning. Both Day-Lewis and Sally Field, who plays Mary Todd Lincoln, look very much like the photos we’ve seen in history books. Mary’s emotional struggles are not overlooked as she grieves her son’s death and chafes against Washington society’s disdain for her background.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, the Republican chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, who doggedly pursues equality for all throughout his entire career. This seems like a typical, sarcastic Tommy Lee Jones role dressed up in a bad wig, but apparently Stevens was a funny, sarcastic kind of guy. James Spader and John Hawkes shine, bringing humor and a nice bit of scheming as operatives hired to help gather the votes necessary for a majority.
All of this comes together as a good biopic. There are moments when the tangled communications between men with varying degrees of beardedness become a bit confusing, and it is a wordy piece of filmmaking. However, this look at Lincoln weaves its way from the personal space at the White House to the telegraph office to the battlefront to the floor of the House of Representatives. Director Steven Spielberg takes complicated, back-room politics to the audience in an entertaining and inspiring way. Viewers will walk away with renewed gratitude and respect for a man who served his country well despite personal trials, even as he wondered, “Are we fitted to the times we’re born into?” Perhaps, like Moses or Esther, he was born for such a time as this. (DreamWorks)
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