Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is everything a film about that towering figure ought to be: majestic yet intimate, respectful but not worshipful. It manages to humanize a historical figure without diminishing him in any way, thanks to the director’s sure hand, a superior screenplay by playwright Tony Kushner (based on the work of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin), and a miraculous performance by Daniel Day-Lewis in the leading role. Why “miraculous?” After just a few minutes’ time, I forgot about the actor and allowed myself to believe that I was actually watching Abraham Lincoln. That’s what is meant by “disappearing into the character.” (At the same time, the audience’s awareness of Tommy Lee Jones, cast as outspoken abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, also works to the film’s advantage because it plays to the actor’s strengths—and his track record of bringing curmudgeons to life.)
Spielberg has assembled a first-class team of collaborators in order to make the 1860s come alive without ever looking, or feeling, like a slick Hollywood period piece. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, production designer Rick Carter, composer John Williams, costume designer Joanna Johnston, and every other colleague’s contributions feel organic and seamless, which is no easy feat.
The film focuses on the last few months of Lincoln’s life, as the bloody Civil War is nearing its conclusion and the President exerts his considerable powers of persuasion—and determination—to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, guaranteeing the end of slavery. As an examination of political gamesmanship in Washington, Lincoln feels surprisingly contemporary.
The cast is overflowing with talent, and every actor gets at least one moment in the spotlight. Sally Field, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Gloria Reuben, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lee Pace, Jared Harris, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, David Oyelowo, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Walton Goggins, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Adam Driver are just a few of the notable players who bring their best game to this endeavor.
What do we learn that we don’t already know about the celebrated 16th President? That depends on how well-read you are on the great man’s life and work. Spielberg, Kushner, and Day-Lewis don’t put him on a pedestal: he has his failings as a father and husband, and threatens to drive some of his cohorts to distraction with his habit of telling aphoristic stories. He is kind and decent, but in order to achieve his goal of abolishing slavery he is willing to make brutal choices. He is a man of many parts, and this film allows us to see a number of those facets. That’s what makes Lincoln so memorable.