Review by Bob Ignizio
Although Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN does provide insight into what made our 16th president the man he was, it's not so much a biopic as it is a movie about how the sausages are made. By that I'm referring to the legislative process, about which John Godfrey Saxe (and not Otto Von Bismarck, who often gets the credit) famously said, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”
The particular sausage being ground up and shoved into its casing in LINCOLN is the 13th amendment which, when it was eventually ratified, abolished slavery in the United States of America. Obviously that's a good thing, but like much that takes place in congress it required a great deal of careful maneuvering and political favors to reach fruition. And while it would be nice to think that “Honest Abe” was strictly above board in all these dealings, the truth is that then as now, the lawmaking process often crossed into ethical gray areas.
The time period in which we see this take place encompasses a mere two months, the final two months of Abraham Lincoln's presidency, in fact. Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) is worried that his Emancipation Proclamation may not pass constitutional muster. He feels he has a moral responsibility to ensure that the end of slavery isn't undone by any potential peace treaty with the Confederacy, and believes that if the amendment doesn't pass before the Civil War is over, it never will. Even getting everyone in his own Republican party on board with this goal is no easy task, requiring the help Lincoln's secretary of state William Seward (David Strathairn) and Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), leader of the Republican's radical abolitionist wing.
To get the necessary number of Democrats for ratification, Lincoln turns to shady lobbyists W. N. Bilbo (James Spader) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson). They're not allowed to outright bribe anyone, but anything short of that is fair game. Meanwhile Lincoln's wife Mary (Sally Field), still reeling from the death of one son, refuses to let oldest boy Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) serve in the Union army. Often reduced in history to “that crazy broad Lincoln was married to”, here Mrs. Lincoln is portrayed in a considerably more sympathetic and nuanced light, providing a reliable sounding board for her husband's ideas and possessing the strength to defend them against his critics when necessary.
It almost goes without saying that Day-Lewis gives an amazing performance in the title role; seriously, can anyone think of a movie he was in where he didn't knock it out of the park? Here he effortlessly conveys Lincoln's strength, humor, and wisdom while at the same time never letting us forget the weariness, self doubt, and sadness just beneath the surface. Jones and Field are just as good in strong, well written supporting roles, and even the most minor parts are carefully cast. Certainly Day-Lewis' Lincoln is the focus, even when he's not on screen, but to some degree this feels more like an ensemble piece than a star-centric biopic. Speaking of the cast, fun bit of trivia. Hal Holbrook, who here plays the role of Preston Blair, has himself played Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln TV miniseries from 1974/5, and in North and South parts 1 and 2.
In a way, Abraham Lincoln was in almost as much need of an image makeover as his wife. In recent years the "Great Emancipator" has often been reduced to little more than a cartoon caricature in Presidents' Day sales ads, or an action hero fighting vampires and zombies in B horror films. Drawing from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book “A Team of Rivals”, Spielberg paints a portrait of his subject that doesn't whitewash his flaws, but that nonetheless shows him as the true American hero that he was.
Unlike last year's so-so THE ADVENTURES OF TIN TIN and WAR HORSE, with LINCOLN Spielberg has delivered a film truly worthy of its numerous inevitable award nominations. In a career with so many excellent films to his name, I can't say that this is the director's best, but it's certainly in the upper echelon with SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, SCHINDLER'S LIST, and JAWS. 4 out of 4 stars.