There has been a great deal of anticipation and curiosity about how the reputable Daniel Day-Lewis would portray one of America’s most revered historical figures. He most certainly does not disappoint, giving a whole-hearted performance as a thoughtful and worn Lincoln in the last grueling breaths of the Civil War. Day-Lewis delivers soft-spoken anecdotes and quandaries with a concerned and exhausted yet warm tone that one could only imagine (and maybe hope) the real Lincoln carried in his voice. It is difficult not to, on one hand, pity this poor, tired man in an impossible situation and, on the other, feel the power and charisma that only Day-Lewis could convey of such an iconic figure.
However, for a film named after the former president, it’s focus does not seem to be on his character and decisions during this crucial time in U.S. history. Rather, the film spends most of it’s time on the people and events surrounding the passing of the 13th Amendment. Yes, Lincoln certainly played a significant role in this (which the film demonstrates), but more of the film’s gusto is found in Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones. Mister Jones, who will with out a doubt grab at least a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his role, delivers with distinction and wit a passionate performance that grabs one’s attention away from even the powerful Day-Lewis. Countless other recognizable faces make up Congress as well which creates a collectively strong and heated representation of what could have easily been a dry point in the film. Considering the emphasis that is placed on Congress and the efforts made (legal and otherwise) to pass the Amendment, the film may have lost a great deal of it’s broader, non-history buff audience had there been a weaker cast.
In speaking of the cast, Sally Field’s performance as Mary Todd Lincoln cannot go un-praised. This could not have been an easy character to approach as Mary Todd Lincoln’s biography is riddled with grief, physical pain and madness yet history suggests that, despite this, she held herself up as a rather dignified and authoritative first lady. Fields walks this line quite well and is perhaps the most insightful glimpse the film offers into the painful home life of the Lincolns in the White House. Fields and Day-Lewis are a great match which comes at little surprise as both have a long list of fervent roles under their belts.
If what the director, Steven Spielberg, intended to show was the ingenious dancing that was performed by Lincoln and Congress to pass the 13th Amendment and end the Civil War, than he certainly succeeded. One is left charmed by Lincoln and impressed by the drive of certain members of Congress at the time. However, one walks away having enjoyed the film but not necessarily having been moved by what should be a moving and powerful event in U.S. history and Civil Rights. This may be due, in part, to the fact that the film picks up a bit awkwardly late in the war (at least a year after the Gettysburg Address) and provides little evidence other than people’s being inspired by his speeches as to what Lincoln was like at the start of the war. This feels like something that, had it been included, would have attached the audience more to the character as Lincoln’s transformation over the course of those four years as a result of stress and unrelenting pressure was rather shocking. It was clear that this was not intended to be another Civil War film but more of a character piece and, as a result, there was virtually no battle portrayed in the film. While initially this felt to be a very necessary piece of the story that was left out, it really was positive move on Spielberg’s part. Leaving this out was effective in putting the audience in the mindset of being on the political side of the war, rather than the more commonly portrayed soldier or homefront perspective, particularly as it related to Lincoln’s eager to join the fight son. Glimpses of body-strewn battlefields and hospital scenes were enough to get the message across.
Lincoln is most definitely worth watching and a unique look into a subject that has otherwise been told and retold the same way for quite awhile. It should just perhaps take on another title as it does not spend enough time on Lincoln to truly feel like a character piece, even with Day-Lewis as the lead.