Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” the film’s major throughline follows Lincoln’s fight to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution passed, which would effectively end slavery. (Spoilers: He succeeds.) The stakes are set high, with rampant opposition to the amendment coming even from Lincoln’s cabinet as they fear abolishment of slavery would only further incite the Southern secessionists even as they near certain defeat in the Civil War. “It is either this amendment or the Confederate peace, you cannot have both,” warns William Seward (David Strathairn), Lincoln’s secretary of state.
Lincoln may be the driving force for the amendment, but Spielberg doesn’t paint him as the lone “hero.” He emphasizes that this could only have happened were it not for the “team” assembled to push it through, including Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and the trio of W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), who were tasked with, ah, “persuading” the democratic representatives needed for passage.
The political machinations provide plenty of dramatic tension and turmoil, but what gives the film its texture is how Spielberg layers these threads with more personal moments as Abe and his wife, Mary (Sally Field) deal with the lingering sadness and survivor’s guilt regarding the death of their third son, William, as well as Abe’s interactions with his oldest and youngest sons, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Tad (Gulliver McGrath).
This is a portrait of Lincoln’s character and moral fortitude that is illuminated rather than a platform for delivering hard historical fact, something that makes the film far more enriching. I’m no historian and it’s been decades since I last cracked open a history book so I’m not in much of a position to comment on the historical accuracy of the events or Lincoln’s actions, but what I can say is that Spielberg crafts a film that expertly communicates the gravitas of this exceptional man.
Of course, he is able to do that in large part because of Daniel Day-Lewis’ captivating and definitive performance as Lincoln. The man has made his career over immersing himself in his roles. There are few cinematic chameleons as skilled as Lewis at disappearing into their roles, a feat he previously exercised to the fullest in “There Will Be Blood.” I’m not sure I’m ready to say his turn as Abraham Lincoln surpasses his work as Daniel Plainview, but it is, at minimum, equal, which is no small amount of praise. Lewis inhabits this role so fully that although we have no recorded footage to compare it to, it’s likely the closest we’ll come to seeing an accurate representation of the man.
This is one of our greatest actors delivering one of his greatest performances, and for that alone the film is worthy of high praise.
“Lincoln” has so much more to offer, though, thankfully, beginning especially with the magnificent supporting cast. Strathairn, Field, Spader, Nelson, Hawkes, Levitt, Jones, Jackie Earl Haley, Bruce McGill, Walton Goggins, Lee Pace and Hal Holbrook. I’m not sure it’s possible to have a better supporting cast than that. All of them are fantastic (as you’d expect), with many providing an unexpected amount of levity to their scenes as the film is often surprisingly quite funny (Spader, Nelson and Hawkes in particular help in this regard).
Additionally, this is one of Spielberg’s most visually unique films as he and longtime collaborator, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, create a visual palette that is unlike anything I’ve seen in a Spielberg film, making it appear as though most scenes were filmed using only natural light. This results in a look that is often steeped in shadows, but it’s never dreary or overly moody.
“Lincoln” is, simply put, one of the finest films of the year and one of the finest films of Spielberg’s career. This is an enriching, illuminating look at a unique figure, the likes of which we are truly fortunate to have had leading our country.