Ten years ago, two movies about Abraham Lincoln were released. In Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Honest Abe hunts vampires, while in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln the President hunts for votes. Let’s revisit Spielberg’s movie, shall we?
Lincoln takes place in 1865, near the end of the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln must now find a way to “procure” enough votes by any means necessary to ensure that the 13th Amendment is passed and thus abolish slavery in the United States of America.
Without question, this moment is a pivot point in the history of the United States and of the world. But how does parliamentary procedure and vote capturing translate into a movie? More importantly, how does this movie hold up today?
The detail that Spielberg achieves to bring this story to life is stunning. From the wallpaper adorning the rooms to the sound of Lincoln’s pocket watch, each of those elements (and everything in between) is authentically recreated. His direction is subdued and intimate, leaving the characters to tell the story.
The depiction of our title character is no less impressive. Screenwriter Tony Kushner pens the most introspective look of the President in film history. This account shows a man unsure about the direction he is leading the country, while also fighting to keep his own family together. The president’s well-known wit and humor, used as a tool to keep spirits high and confidence rolling (much to the chagrin of some of his Cabinet members), is on full display. However, he usually disappears into solitude and darkness to face his personal struggles and ruminate over the best course of action to save the nation. In the hands of Daniel Day-Lewis, this nuance becomes fascinating to watch. Not only is the physical resemblance uncanny, but his portrayal of Lincoln also has a subtle gravitas that reflects a weary man crushed by the unbearable weight of the massive responsibility. It is extraordinary. Day-Lewis’ performance would eventually land him his third Oscar win for Best Actor.
The rest of the cast, comprised of a collection of masters too long to list, are at the top of their game. Worth singling out are Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as Representative Thaddeus Stevens. Field brings a palpable ferocity to her performance that is far from the “crazy” that Mary Lincoln is historically portrayed. Jones plays Stevens as a passionate politician that must decide between his very personal convictions or getting the 13th Amendment passed. Both would receive Oscar nominations in the Best Supporting categories.
These elements only begin to scratch the surface of what Lincoln offers. When it comes to the intricacies of the political machinery, there is much to unpack, enough to fill an entire book’s worth. Political wheeling and dealing are on full display. Shady politics, questionable practices, and at least four score and seven diatribes slung between opposing political factions. Perhaps most memorable comes from Jones, channeling Stevens in the monologue that earned him his Oscar nomination (…before me stands, stinking, the moral carcass of the gentleman from Ohio…YOU are more reptile than man!). Yes, the political circus is alive and well in 1865.
Lincoln is not a perfect movie though. There is a cheesy scene at the beginning of the movie that feels more appropriate for The Hall of Presidents show at Walt Disney World. Another element of the movie that is not up to par is the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and his son Robert (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who are at odds over the latter’s participation in the war. An exploration of the complicated father/son relationship is well merited, but Lincoln hardly expands on this. The end of the movie, which shows Lincoln’s assassination is also unnecessarily tacked on and only adds length to an already long movie (two hours and thirty minutes).
Nonetheless Lincoln remains a fascinating look into a major moment in history. Ten years after the film’s release, symbols of oppression, dissent and ultimately failure still wave freely from sea to shining sea. Voices of racism and hate sound loudly like bombs bursting in air. This makes Spielberg’s historical drama even more relevant today. Along with being a masterclass in movie making, the film is also a reminder of the extraordinary sacrifices that were made for the sake of morality, justice, and basic human decency that are continued to be fought for today. Lincoln belongs to the ages.