“If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”
—Abraham Lincoln, in a letter dated April 4, 1864
Set in the final months of Lincoln’s first term, the Civil War, and Lincoln’s life, the film Lincoln is everything you’ve come to expect from a Spielberg project – top shelf actors giving career-capping performances, historically detailed costumes and sets, beautifully engaging framing … and it runs long at 150 minutes.
Historically speaking, giving 2 hours and 30 minutes of your life to any pursuit will, in the end, be somewhat trivial. The same can be said for sitting through Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. The film is dense, filled with acidic, venomous dialogue and moments of extreme violence. Boasting a cast of highly talented actors, Lincoln is not only slightly mentally exhausting to endure but it exacts an emotional toll as well.
Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Abraham Lincoln. And unlike other historical/biographical portrayals by actors in film this year, Day-Lewis completely disappears into the role. But his performance is, in the end, unsurprising. Day-Lewis is one of the most committed and talented actors working. He imbues in his version of Lincoln a steady calm, an unwavering hold on his position as president and commander in chief, and an otherworldly patience.
Sally Field stars as Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd. I’ve spent my entire life watching the performances of Field – from Norma Rae, Places in the Heart, to Steel Magnolias. I grew up secretly wishing Field was my mother, or better still, my Aunt. Her choices as an actor, as an artist have given cinema endearing, strong and lovable female characters. Her version of Mary Todd Lincoln is uncompromising, providing a portrait of a woman unhinged and inconsolable.
Given the stellar ensemble of Hollywood’s finest, Tommy Lee Jones, who stars as a true champion of the 13th Amendment, Thaddeus Stevens, is perhaps the stand-out. His performance of Stevens is nuanced, delicate, and yet supremely forceful. Jones provides a powerfully emotional performance that captivates and drives Lincoln. If Jones doesn’t see an Oscar nod (and, dare I say, win) for his performance, it will be among the great travesties of the Academy Awards.
Lincoln is an epic journey through what it really took to abolish slavery in the United States – the illegalities, the lying, the bribery, the extension of presidential war powers. It also attempts to provide and empathetic look at the Southern rebels during the Civil War. Lincoln provides an even-handed glimpse into the reasons, emotions, and excuses given by both sides during the debate on the 13th Amendment.
Pulitzer Prize winning Tony Kushner penned the Lincoln screenplay. Genius and reaching, it often tries to accomplish more than the viewer will be able to absorb in one sitting. The dialogue is just as brutal as the opening scene in which men are shown in the intimate embrace of hand-on-hand combat, killing one another in the mud.
Lincoln will move you, but in surprising ways – from the loving glimpse into Lincoln’s life as a husband and father, to the reasons why support for the 13th Amendment was so impassioned. Lincoln is a glimpse into our political history and a love song to a great nation that almost wasn’t.