Lincoln is much more a story as much about underhanded dealings and political compromise than it is a sentimental, triumphant biography of a heroic president. But, interestingly, the portrait of Lincoln that emerges from the film is one of a man even more heroic given what he’s forced to confront. He’s a man who completely understands the situation and the odds stacked against him, yet who believes in the cause so much that he will do anything to see it through. He authorizes bribes to Congressmen on their way out of office in the form of promised appointments, he orders that a peace delegation from the Confederacy be delayed in order to prevent peace rumors from derailing the bill, and he works with hostile forces from all sides in order to do what he feels is right.
Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis give us a Lincoln whose defining characteristic seems to be his weariness. The war has drained him, the death of his son and subsequent deterioration of his wife are a huge burden to him, and the squabbling political situation blocks him at every turn. Day-Lewis’s Lincoln mostly speaks softly and calmly most of the time, in a high reedy voice that is far from the way he has been depicted in the past, and he loves to tell stories, much to the exasperation of those who know him well but to the general pleasure of those who don’t. When he does raise his voice in anger or passion, he speaks with authority, often shaming those whose priorities are misaligned.
Spielberg has surrounded Day-Lewis’s Lincoln with an equally phenomenal cast. Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, a woman consumed with grief over the loss of her son, is a powerful force in Abraham’s life. She is both highly supportive and bitterly resentful of her husband, at times able to face down members of Congress with fire in her eyes and at other times unable to even function as her sadness and anger overwhelms her. Also in the supporting cast are many other fantastic actors, including Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and James Spader.
A highlight of the film, Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens, a Radical Republican who believes not only abolishing slavery but in completely equal rights for blacks, including voting rights and the right to intermarriage. Known for being a “radical”, he has a history of proclaiming his “extreme” views on the House floor, and his companions in the House fear that his views will derail the process. In perhaps the best scene of the movie, his opportunity to speak on the amendment arrives and his opposition has filled the hall with reporters, ready to expose his extreme views in order to kill the amendment. Stevens is forced speak like a moderate, despite attempts from the opposition to draw out his true feelings, and the way in which he walks the tightrope between restraint and saying something he disagrees with is a masterwork of filmmaking. Also, his realization that small progress is still progress, and sometimes the best you can achieve, is a great message to those members of today’s population who chafe at the sometimes glacial pace of progress in this country.
It’s clear from the film that Spielberg is not only passionate about the material but that he understands it. Lincoln has long been a project of his, dating back at least to 2005 when Liam Neeson was in talks to star. The technique of focusing the biopic on one key event of Lincoln’s life allows the film to fully explore the man without the need to bog the movie down in backstory or unnecessary details. As a result, Lincoln is infinitely more interesting than a hypothetical biopic bloated with scenes of his childhood or long battle sequences. Even John Wilkes Booth doesn’t make it into the film, a choice not to define the man by his death but by his works.
For the most part, Spielberg keeps out of the way, using a simple style that allows the performances and the writing to shine through. At the same time, his fingerprints are all over Lincoln, and he shows again why he is the greatest living filmmaker. The production design of the movie is perfect, and Day-Lewis looks believably like Abraham Lincoln. The film was shot in and around Richmond, VA, using historic buildings and locations for much of the shoot, and the feeling of those places permeates the movie with a feeling of authenticity you wouldn’t find if it had been filmed mostly in Hollywood.
But in the end, despite the important issues and moments at stake in the film, Lincoln is the story of a man. He is presented not as some demigod of heroic proportions, but as a human man, with his own failings and faults. His heroism therefore comes supernatural gifts but instead from his determination and compassion in the face of great challenges and hostile opposition. And, really, what more could you want from a President, or a film?