Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Joseph, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee-Jones
Director: Stephen Spielberg
With a massive 12 Academy Award nominations, Steven Spielberg’s epic historical drama, Lincoln, looks set to take the most coveted of the Academy Awards at the end of the month: Best Film. The story, which focuses on the final four months in the life of the United States’ 16th president, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), has garnered massive critical acclaim. And, it has also been a U.S. box-office hit.
The film begins in January 1865. The Civil War is nearing its end. Lincoln is desperate to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution through the House of Representatives, which would abolish slavery throughout the country. The president fears that as soon as the war is over, his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, that declared slaves in the rebel Confederate territory in the South free, would be overturned because it was not a law that was passed through Congress, but rather an order he made as the Commander-in-Chief of the army. If the Proclamation is invalidated everyone who was emancipated would be re-enslaved. And, if the war ends before the Amendment is passed, it is unlikely to ever make it into law as the slave-states would not support it.
In order to pass the Amendment, Lincoln not only has to unite the Radical Republicans in his party, but convince several Democrats to vote for the Amendment as well. The president decides to woo lame-duck Democrats who have already lost in the elections and would therefore not be concerned about not towing the party line.
Day-Lewis is, as would be expected from the two-time Oscar-winning actor, absolutely superb as the revered Lincoln. Day-Lewis, who is both famous and infamous for his method acting, is magnetic on screen. The actor prepares for months to play any character, immersing himself in the role and often demanding those around him treat him as that person. He has said that he read numerous books and articles about Lincoln and plays him with gravitas, portraying him as a calm, austere man of stature with a down-to-earth sense of humour.
Spielberg has also used a host of respected thespians to support Day-Lewis. Sally Field has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as the president’s emotionally unstable and slightly hysterical wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. His Secretary of State, William Seward, is played by David Straitharn (a previous Academy Award nominee). Tommy Lee Jones is the Radical Republican Congressional Leader, Thaddeus Stevens (nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role) and Joseph Gordon-Lewitt is Robert Lincoln, Abe’s oldest son.
Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushphner wrote the screenplay, based on letters and speeches Lincoln wrote, which is partly why the dialogue is so lofty and often lyrical. Lincoln was a master orator and the film ends with an excerpt from his second inauguration speech, helping to show Lincoln not only as a master politician but also as a noble hero. It is difficult to be unmoved by words such as these:
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Lincoln’s only (small) drawback is its length – the running time tops two and a half hours – but, the subject certainly commands it. It is a measured, in-depth portrait of a man who has often been hailed the Free World’s greatest leader during a complicated time in American history. This is a film of art rather than action and a grand one at that.