The telling of some stories are challenges that even the best and brightest of Hollywood may initially deem insurmountable. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a magnificent example of such a test; with diverging genres of history, politics, war, drama, and biography and a protagonist who is one of the most revered Americans in history, audiences held lofty expectations for the film.
The screenplay, written by Tony Kushner, is based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Undoubtedly, the scope of Lincoln could have been immense, too great to condense into a 120-minute script, but collaborators smartly narrowed the vision to the final four months of Lincoln’s life and presidency.
War is the opening landscape: hear the rifled-muskets firing and shouting of men, see soldiers in uniforms soiled with blood, dirt and sweat and the glint of bayonets against a gray sky, smell the putrid mess of dying men. The horror of the Civil War is unmistakable. Later, it is nighttime in an army camp, January 1865: President Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) speaks candidly with a few young Union soldiers who recite lines from his Gettysburg Address with compelling admiration.
Soon after, the film reveals another battle the country faces in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which would finally abolish slavery in the United States. The President feels his efforts since the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves have been inadequate, even hypocritical, since slavery is still legal. He is faced with a decision to prolong the Civil War and fight for the amendment or give up on outlawing slavery for the sake of a quicker peace with the South. Abolishing slavery is a personal crusade for the President and other fellow Republicans, especially radical Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). The loyal, but often obstinate, Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) works to procure the necessary Democratic votes in the House to pass the amendment.
Much of the film is devoted to realizing the President’s inner thoughts, with captivating interactions between Lincoln and White House aides, family members or ordinary citizens. He often takes time to tell a seemingly long-winded story or a humorous joke that has the profound impact of bringing a noisy room to thoughtful silence. One of my favorite scenes takes place in the communications room when Lincoln explains Euclid’s common notion to two young telegraph writers: “Things which are equal to the same things are equal to each other.” As an audience member, I felt present in the conversations, in his thought processes and in the moments of revelation, which speaks to the genius with which the script was written.
The scenes in the House of the Representatives were phenomenally shot with camera angles that offered the audience a seat with Mrs. Lincoln in the balcony or on the floor in the midst of one of the most epic debates the U.S. government ever considered. Steven Spielberg’s genius for carving a story out of the facts history has recorded and the unknown scenes one must imagine to tie them together is alive in Lincoln. Mr. Spielberg may have said it best himself in a New York Times interview: “Special effects, high-genre concepts, big set pieces, eventizing history…I’ve never before made a film without all of those nets for me to fall into…where this was going to succeed or fail based on the writing and based on the performances. Maybe this is the quietest directing I’ve done in my life.”
Despite the sadness of the final scenes surrounding Lincoln’s assassination, the film instills courage and hope for the country’s future. The realistic character resemblances, John Williams’ musical score, and award-winning art direction create a rare motion picture experience. With twelve Academy Award nominations, Lincoln is sure to be a film that educates and inspires generations of Americans for years to come.
The Verdict: Take part in reliving history on the silver screen and be in awe of the resilience of America’s democracy. See Lincoln before the Oscars Feb. 24!
Opened: November 16, 2012
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Music, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing