Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader and John Hawkes
With the recent presidential election, America is still contending with arguments and disagreements between the political parties on how to run the country. The same was true nearly 150 years ago, when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, giving slaves their freedom, and pushed to sign the 13th Amendment to end slavery. The new historical biography film ‘Lincoln,’ which is now playing in theaters, shows the personal and professional struggles the famed president faced during his time in the White House.
‘Lincoln’ follows the title character, the 16th president of the United States (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) as he pushes for the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. As the Civil War rages on, the president must also contend with the continued carnage on the battlefield, and the fights he even experiences with members in his own cabinet over the decision to emancipate the slaves. The anti-abolitionist Democrats will be tested against Lincoln’s moderates and the more zealous anti-slavery radicals of the young Republican Party.
Lincoln must also deal with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (portrayed by Sally Field), as she struggles with the deaths of several of their sons, and the estrangement he faces with his college-age son Robert (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who returns home from Harvard to join the Union army.
Screenwriter Tony Kushner, who partially based the script for the biographical drama on Doris Kerans Goodwin’s book ‘Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,’ emotionally showcased the true motivations behind Lincoln’s push to pass the 13th Amendment and end the Civil War. Instead of mainly focusing on the bloody fight between the Union and Confederate soldiers on the battlefields, or how the fighting affected the public, the film personalized the respected leader. The story considerably doesn’t portray the 16th president without inflated self-importance or grandeur; he takes the feelings of his black staff, and the soldiers he has spoken to on the battlefield, into consideration, and won’t end the war unless he knows for certain they will be free.
Spielberg rightfully pursued Day-Lewis to portray the title role of one of the most respected and popular American presidents, knowing the two-time Academy Award-winning actor could accurately portray the uncompromising leadership skills Lincoln possessed. While Day-Lewis was initially reluctant to accept the part, as he said he didn’t “want to stain the reputation of the greatest president America’s ever seen,” he finally took on the role after he discovered Lincoln’s humor and accessibility in his research. Not only did the actor come to fully embrace the president’s wittiness and readiness to act in the best nature of all Americans, he also brilliantly transformed physically. Day-Lewis effortlessly captured Lincoln’s stature throughout the film, and would change his posture and poise in response to those around him, whether he was being distant when Mary was still in mourning over their son, or being a strong leader amongst his peers.
Day-Lewis skillfully switched back and forth between Lincoln’s enthusiasm of telling heart-felt stories to his Cabinet and his seemingly apparent reluctance over contending with Mary’s depression over the death of one of their sons, three years earlier. The actor showed that while the president regularly and expertly used intimidation and intellectual persuasion with his political peers while trying to end the war, he was unhappy with his family life. Lincoln was shown to be more comfortable and confident in discussing his days working as a lawyer and humble beginnings than answering Mary’s continuous complaints and Robert’s insistence that he join the army, so that he could fulfill his duties as a man.
While Day-Lewis gave a dramatic, and at times humorous, portrayal of Lincoln, several of the film’s supporting cast, including Tommy Lee Jones, James Spader and John Hawkes, also gave the movie emotional support and comedic relief. Jones portrays Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, a lifelong activist for race equality, but refuses to give into a lesser modification of the 13th Amendment. While Stevens does give into the requests of his political counterparts at times, he refuses to give up on his beliefs, even it they make him an outsider.
Spader and Hawkes played WN Bilbo and Robert Latham, respectively, two Republican laborers who used any means necessary to change the minds of their Democratic opponents about the amendment. They also tried to delay a high-level Confederate delegation from traveling to the White House to agree on a piece treaty. The two were so intent on persuading the delegates to change their minds that they didn’t seem to mind putting their lives at risk for the cause.
While ‘Lincoln’ features an emotional story and strong performances by its cast, Spielberg also featured impressive visuals that reflected the time period. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, for example, shot the film prominently in shades of black and blue, to show the meek, depressed struggles Lincoln faced as he became ever more determined to end slavery. Production designer Rick Carter also created elaborate sets, from the personal rooms the Lincolns used in the White House to the professional set-up of the room used by Congress, that reflected the true nature and motivations of the characters.
‘Lincoln’ is an intriguing, insightful look into the personal motivations and emotions that drove the president to stand up for what he ethically and morally believed in. The film, which features authentic, memorable performances by a cast who truly understand the motivations of their characters, isn’t a historical biographical drama driven by battle scenes or solely by one leader’s actions; the stunning visuals and story-driven plot authentically showed the obstacles the president had to overcome to truly change a nation.
Written by: Karen Benardello