Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham LincolnDaniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Liincoln has become much more than a historical figure. He stands above the founders as a paragon of American ideals, of honesty and perseverance, of steadfast belief and strong leadership. He is almost sacrosanct in nature, a saint of America’s secular religion, which teaches reverence to the Constitution and the Republic above all other creeds. He is, quite simply, everyone’s president.
Given this stature, it’s appropriate that Lincoln has been depicted in film more times than any other president. In film and books, he has been exhaustively researched and deconstructed. Yet, despite all of this academic investigation, he is still a mysterious figure. Steven Spielberg’s latest film, “Lincoln,” doesn’t reveal anything new. If anything, it reinforces the all too familiar idealistic view of our 16th president. But the film is wonderfully made, with a transcendent performance by Daniel Day Lewis, and an attention to detail that makes Congressional politics as exciting and powerful as a Civil War battle.
“Lincoln” focuses on the final months of the president’s life. He has been re-elected, the war is drawing to a close, and the 13th Amendment is making its way through the House. Lincoln is determined to pass the bill before the war ends so that it has a chance at ratification rather than being dropped as a condition for the South’s surrender.
We follow Lincoln’s agents as they work to secure the 20 votes from the Democrats needed for a two-thirds majority. He also has to secure the votes of every Republican in the House, not just the radical abolitionists. The debates on the House floor are thrilling. There is an entertaining lack of decorum among the politicians, a style of rhetoric that has unfortunately vanished in modern times. If the House of Representatives were like this today, CSPAN would have higher ratings than anything on network television.
The film is unique in that it shows Lincoln working in the White House, arguing with his cabinet while playing with his son Tad, telling stories at length, much to the chagrin of his team of rivals. He doesn’t stand making speeches. Lincoln is portrayed as a man out of time, one who sees so much more than those that surround him.
Lincoln here is almost Christ-like—he exudes wisdom in the form of parable, making connections through anecdotal narratives and teaching his disciples with love and affection, even though they do not understand his greater purpose. There is a fascinating scene in which he describes his thoughts behind the Emancipation Proclamation and his seizure of powers that had not been previously found within the executive branch. He is told that through his actions he could be seen as a dictator; he says he was re-elected, so the people agree with his actions. What the audience sees is a man faced with extraordinary circumstances who does what he sees as necessary without knowing if the choices are the right ones.
Daniel Day Lewis is the best actor of any generation. There is no trace of the man he is—he disappears into every role so completely that he becomes the person he portrays. So many actors maintain who they are across their body of work, In “Lincoln,” we are completely aware that Tommy Lee Jones is only playing the character of Thaddeus Stevens because Tommy Lee Jones is always playing a version of himself. The distinction between the two actors could not be clearer: Lewis is a proxy through which Lincoln speaks while Jones is wearing Thaddeus Stevens as a mask.
The rest of the cast is well placed—Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln is wonderfully frail in private and outwardly strong in social settings. The scenes between Lincoln and his wife are the film’s only insight into the man that Lincoln was—grief stricken at the loss of his son William, frustrated to no end at his wife’s mental frailty, carrying the weight of the War and its victims heavily on his shoulders. Lewis takes all of these characteristics and mixes them into his performance. This is more than Oscar caliber acting—this is the pinnacle of human ability in the dramatic arts.
The Great Emancipator was not a strong abolitionist, but he knew the direction of history led towards freedom. This film may show him as more divine than human, but considering the state of the country at the time, this portrayal might be more accurate than we know.