By Jessica Delfanti | November 8, 2012
Director: Stephen Spielberg
Writer: Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrock, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, Gulliver McGrath, Jared Harris
In the ubiquitous buzz that surrounded the casting of Daniel Day Lewis in Stephen Spielberg’s new film Lincoln, the most prescient sentiment was that the Academy should just award Lewis his Oscar now. Certainly, Lewis seems capable of discerning the perfect roles for his chameleon talents, and his masterful portrayal of one of America’s greatest historical figures should not only earn him great laurels but also an iconic status. With a signature top hat and a messy mop of greying hair, Lewis does not portray the President; he is Lincoln. And that’s just the first of a dozen reasons why Lincoln is among the best films made this year. Lincoln is not a typical childhood to death biopic, instead choosing to focus on the tenuous period after Lincoln’s reelection, toward the end of the Civil War, when the President tried desperately to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed to abolish slavery once and for all. The film revolves around Lincoln’s many personal struggles: the emotional tax of his office upon his wife (marvelously portrayed by Sally Field), and two sons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gulliver McGrath); responsibility for the carnage on the battlefield; the political battle with the more conservative members of the House; the question of how many wrong things are warranted in pursuit of what’s right.
Lewis, stretched to fit Lincoln’s famously lanky form, plastered with insanely authentic prosthetics, is the perfect fit for the nobly aging President. He speaks in a weary, soft-spoken voice meant to match historical descriptions of Lincoln’s voice, and acts with a sheepish determination. He rarely raises his voice, and yet maintains a delicate intensity interrupted only by brief moments of light-hearted and well timed humor. While watching, it is difficult to find Lewis within Lincoln, and the immersion this provides gives the viewer an almost uncanny feeling of gazing directly into history.
Granted, Lewis has a tendency to outshine his costars, but we cannot fail to appreciate the ensemble cast that comes forward to construct the strong characters of 1865. Most notably, Tommy Lee Jones portrays Thaddeus Stevens, the intensely liberal advocate of racial equality that extols his views in argumentative and hilariously offensive ways. Lee Pace and Peter McRobbie represent the other side, intensely likeable House members arguing to maintain the status quo. And David Strathairn’s performance as Secretary of State William Seward is riddled with a profound sense of the love and understanding that passes between people whose hope for humanity finds them in such deep congruence that their relationship goes beyond friendly or professional into heroic alliance.
Outside of the House, the cast is equally charming. As the leader of a band of brigands attempting to coerce or buy votes for the Amendment, James Spader steals every scene. Constantly eating, behaving in colorfully rude ways, and making declarations from a crumb-riddled mustache, Spader is the epitome of a rascal with a heart of gold. As his more discerning comrades, John Hawkes and Stephen Spinella prove perfect foils for Spader’s particular theatricality.
It would be a mistake, of course, to attribute the film’s quality solely to the caliber of acting. Tony Kushner’s script is lovingly wordy, expressing a deep appreciation for the political thinkings of the time, and Lincoln’s own adoration of rhetorical expression. With a steady pace that maintains the tension and provides a slow rise to the final climax, Kushner gives the country-changing issue the attention and time it needs. And yet, even with this measured appreciation for the severity of the topic, Kushner slips in the lightest of humor here and there, so that the film never feels overly heavy or clunky.
The marvelous content of the film is supported by art direction that renders the mid 1800s in beautiful detail. The majority of the film takes place in the White House, here portrayed with a musty library feel, constantly filled with dark polished wood and many, many books. The array of facial hair styles alone is astonishing, but when paired with authentic costumes and period-specific props, the transition into the 1800s is seamless.
While viewers searching for something more modern and exciting might find the more esoteric parts of the film to be plodding, most will leave Lincoln satisfied by the film, and inspired by its lessons: that one man’s determination can change the course of history, that politics is not just a space for the power hungry, and that this country may have its problems, but it is men like Lincoln that established America as a home for freedom and change. Lincoln may be about the 1800s, but with a release right after the election, there has never been a better time to demonstrate how some themes never cease to be relevant.