I don’t know if it’s because I’m British or because my knowledge of history, and in particular American history, is fairly basic but I have been aware of Abraham Lincoln on a fairly shallow level. I know he was assassinated in a theatre, I know he freed the slaves and ended the Civil War, but for the most part I know him as caricature – the tall hat, the silly beard and the speeches (and I’m not just talking about Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which I suppose you could consider the unofficial prequel to this film) – and not as a real person. Daniel Day-Lewis has changed that with his amazing performance as the great man in this well-written and well-directed film looking at a small but important section of his life.
Lincoln the film mostly takes place over a short period of time in January 1865, and is about the behind-the-scenes political wrangling required to find enough votes in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution that banned slavery, which was necessary to make the Emancipation Proclamation into law. The whys and the hows are made clear in the film but it doesn’t talk down or oversimplify matters – this is West Wing: The Early Years, where people talk quickly using terms that are not used outside political discussions and in a language that is representative of the time. And there is a lot of talking – this film is mostly men with silly facial hair in rooms having animated discussions about important things, until we reach the climax of the vote in the Capitol at the end of the film. However, it is thoroughly absorbing, as you watch good actors exchange intelligent dialogue in believable settings about a fascinating point in history.
Spielberg is in serious-mode here (see Amistad, Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan) and so keeps a tight control on his Spielbergian flourishes, maintaining an intimate tone to reveal the weight of proceedings. Despite many scenes occurring in small spaces with a necessary sense of crampedness, the film doesn’t feel small or televisual. He matches and enhances the tone of the intelligent script, allowing the events to speak instead of overwhelming them. He also brings out excellent performances from a lot of familiar faces: Tommy Lee Jones is great as Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republication faction of the Republican Party and fierce opponent of slavery (and he gets most of the best lines in the film); David Strathairn is typically good as Secretary of State William Seward; Sally Field is excellent as Mary Lincoln, showing her smarts as a political operator and the emotional fragility after the loss of their son without falling into histrionics; and a host of recognisable faces are typically good in other roles (Hal Holbrook, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Walton Goggins, Jared Harris).
But it is Day-Lewis who dominates the film. His performance encompasses the entirety of the man and the myth of Honest Abe. He looks taut and thin and walks as if his feet are too heavy in his physicality while the weight of his position and what he is trying to do is evident on his face; he charms people with his storytelling (the anecdote about the picture of George Washington in a toilet is great) but he’s also a shrewd political operator when needed, sharp and quick with his understanding and discussion with his lawyer’s skills; he’s an orator, naturally, but also a father and husband, trying to keep his son from fighting in the war for justifiable selfish reasons and coping with a wife who almost withdrew from reality due to the death of their son (there is a great scene between the two of them that shows there was life outside of political history). It works to give three dimensions to a character shaded now by history and importance, and is thoroughly deserving of the Academy Award he will no doubt win.