Shortly after reelection, with the end of the Civil War in sight, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) decides to take advantage of a lame duck Congress in order to pass the thirteenth amendment which abolished slavery. The idea is that many of the Democrat Congressmen that were not reelected could be convinced into voting for the amendment seeing that they would suffer no political consequences. Meanwhile, the president battles family troubles as his oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wishes to enlist in the army and serve his country against his mother’s (Sally Field) wishes, who is still mourning the death of one of the youngest children.
While Abraham Lincoln is one of the most famous men that ever lived, little is known about who he was. He lived in a time before film could capture the sound of his voice or the way he walked but Day-Lewis becomes him so completely it just may be how we picture the man from now on. One thing the film does well is show Lincoln as a man not a saint. While it is still a very complimentary portrayal, this Lincoln has a sense of humor, often telling funny stories to the troops and his cabinet. Lincoln was known by his peers as a lover of a good joke and it’s great to see that side of him celebrated.
While Day-Lewis was the stand out of the film, the rest of the cast is strong. Tommy Lee Jones is stellar as Congressman Thaddeus Stephens, the dedicated abolitionist who must learn to hold back and compromise for the good of the cause. The film does a great job of making the legislative parts fun by showing how feisty Congressional sessions could get. Republicans and Democrats fling cleverly crafted insults at each other. James Spader is also hilarious as part of the team lobbying to change the outgoing Democrats’ minds. Sally Field does well as the emotionally unstable Mary Todd Lincoln and Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes you wish his role was larger.
It was a bold move by Spielberg to make the passing of the thirteenth amendment the focus of the film. For a filmmaker known for large action movies, this film has a lot of talking. Considering there is a war waging in the background throughout, the climax is a vote. The suspense caused by what men will say yay and which with say nay. Also, considering Lincoln is know as much for being assassinated as for freeing the slaves, his death is portrayed as an afterthought. It is clear Spielberg sees Lincoln’s life as the remarkable story, not his death.
Considering the subject matter, the film is careful not to stumble into schmaltzy territory. There are a few moments where it stumbles in that respect, namely the opening where soldiers, white and black, recite the Gettysburg Address to Lincoln. However, I must say I was proud of Spielberg for not winking at the audience when reciting what future could hold for black America after slavery was abolished by having someone say something like “What next, a black president?”
While this isn’t a film I would say must be seen on the big screen, it should be seen by anyone that appreciates top-notch acting and doesn’t think big explosions are needed to keep an audience entertained.