REVIVING A GREAT ORATOR
This film follows President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he tries to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, the amendment abolishing slavery, before the Civil War comes to an end.
I was warned that this movie can be very verbose as it navigates the policymaking world of 1865 Washington and you really needed to be alert in order to watch it. That’s okay, I transcribed a lot of C-Span in my intern days in television. The other issue is that the preachiness of the film outweighs the other aspects of it. If my mom, who is not fluent in English and would rather watch action movies, is able to sit through the movie and be entertained by it, then I think that’s a win. Stephen Spielberg and Screenwriter Tony Kushner is excellent at weaving the personal lives with the politics in this movie. As the politicians are debating, I could see the merits of both sides without prejudice. It’s not an easy task when I come from a generation who cannot fathom life where slave labor openly exists.
At the forefront of this amendment is Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) who had been fighting to abolish slavery for almost 30 years. He fears that Lincoln will turn his back on emancipation in favor of ending the war but Lincoln wants to live up to the promise he made during the Emancipation Proclamation. Complicating the issue, the Confederates send envoys in hopes of ending the war but Lincoln keeps it quiet for the sake of the bill.
Lincoln’s worry is that if the war ends too soon the court will throw out the Emancipation Proclamation and return the newly freed slaves to their former positions arguing that the slaves were only freed in order to help fight the war and keeping the Union together. The trouble with keeping the war going is being responsible for continuing to send young soldiers to their deaths. The Southern stance remains that if they stay in the Union but slavery is abolished, it will be a devastating blow to their economy. There’s an interesting debate that goes on here in the movie.
However, what caught my eye at first was the bevy of character actors in this film. Beyond Sally Field playing the First Lady, there is David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gloria Reuben (ER), Stephen Henderson (Law & Order, The Newsroom), Hal Holbrook (Into the Wild, Water for Elephants), Lee Pace (Pushing Daisies), David Costabile (Flight of the Conchords, Suits), Michael Stuhlbarg (Boardwalk Empire), James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes (Deadwood), S. Epatha Merkerson (Law & Order), Jackie Earle Haley, Gregory Itzin (24, Covert Affairs), Jared Harris (Fringe, Mad Men), David Oyelowo (Spooks (aka MI-5), Five Days), Lukas Haas… you get the picture. That’s the power of Stephen Spielberg.
I’ve always viewed First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln negatively. In history texts, she always comes off as overbearing. Sure, she was dealing with the death of her son and worried that she might lose Robert Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to the war but I didn’t really feel she was all that helpful to the President. However, the way Sally Field plays her made me see her differently. She’s a stubborn, outspoken lady but surely the repeated assassination attempts on her husband would make anyone paranoid.
Instead, Lincoln had his right-hand man in matters of the state. Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) saw Lincoln’s vision and helped him to achieve those goals. David Strathairn plays him thoughtfully and pragmatically. I’ll admit that the Confederate envoys with Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) at its helm was of no surprise to me in terms of the casting. They are perfectly suited for the role and I had to let out an audible chuckle at the expression on their faces when they see they are being escorted to the negotiating table by Black Union soldiers.
Though out of all the supporting cast members, Tommy Lee Jones was the most powerful. He doesn’t take up a huge wealth of screen time as there is so much going on in this movie and so many people to focus on but I love that moment on the House floor when he surprises the opposition by moderating his comments about racial equality saying, “I don’t hold with equality in all things, just equality before the law, nothing more.” As if that speech wasn’t rousing enough, I love that when the amendment passes he asks the clerk if he could borrow the amendment promising to return it the next day. It’s so he could take it home to show it to his common-law wife. It’s just a nice and unexpected moment.
Finally, there’s Daniel Day-Lewis’ beautiful performance. Having only seen Les Mis previously out of the Oscar contenders, I assumed Hugh Jackman was a shoo-in for the Best Actor win but upon seeing Lewis’ performance I opted to cast my vote his way. It’s a hard category and there are times when I prefer the categories to be split like the Golden Globes but Daniel Day-Lewis plays the title role just as how I imagined he’d be in real life.
With a towering, hunching stature, he’s got a gentle voice that reasons rather than demands. Perhaps that makes him come off as a little preachy but it didn’t feel that way for me. There is also a weariness to the way Daniel Day-Lewis plays him and rightly so as the Civil War was a long and tiring era to be the Commander in Chief. He’s ever so patient when it comes to Mary Todd and Robert but playful when it comes to Tad Lincoln (Gulliver McGrath).
As for the final scene, there have been many documentaries and movies reenacting that fateful night at Ford’s Theater but I thought it was a unique choice to show the face of innocence lost as we see the night unfold from Tad’s perspective. In a strange way it reminds me of the iconic image of JFK, Jr. saluting as the burial procession passes him by.
What Ken Burns does for the Civil War documentary is done here in a similar fashion. There might not be a wealth of action scenes but what Spielberg and Kushner do so well is interlink fascinating political debates with the characters’ individual motives and their personal drama. Lincoln tells the whole story without it being a cumbersome history lesson.