By J.T. Johnson
“Lincoln” is not a movie about the legend of the president who freed the slaves. Instead, it is a real interpretation of events and it takes a look at a man that struggled to pass the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery. It looks at a man who had obscure war powers which allowed him to bend the rules of law. It is also about a man who had to contend with his emotionally unstable wife, had to contend with a Congress that was not on his side and a man who also had a penchant for telling stories.
The film also does not look at the whole of Lincoln’s life. The audience does not follow him from birth to death. Instead, the film is a drama about the last few months of Lincoln’s time in office. He has already given the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address. Now, before the war’s inevitable end, Lincoln wants to abolish slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment so there can be no way of going back to slavery after the war.
It definitely won’t be easy considering that the Republican president has to contend with a hostile Democratic Congress led primarily by Congressman Fernando Wood (Lee Pace). Mostly for the sake of peace, Lincoln also has to contend with his friends who think that he is simply prolonging the war a little longer in order to get the amendment passed. This includes his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), an influential Republican who could cause some in Congress to turn against the amendment if peace is not guaranteed after its passage.
The first thing to note about this film is that it is a film that is driven by dialogue and very little action. “Lincoln” is more of a political thriller rather than a biopic of the man in the center of the debate. It is this fresh look at the very real politics that went behind ratifying the thirteenth amendment that separate the film from the rest of the movies that are about Lincoln.
Of course, the whole film would fall apart had director Steven Spielberg not cast the right person in the role to bring out the real humanity in Lincoln. Originally cast was Liam Neeson, but after a few months and no progress on the production of the film being made, Neeson left because he felt he had grown too old for the part. Luckily, chameleon actor Day-Lewis was there to step in and what a performance he gives.
Day-Lewis genuinely paints a picture of an extraordinary man who put the country back together, but manages to stay away from the icon that has carried on throughout the years since. This is a man who has to contend with personal issues such as his own son wanting to join the Union Army and Day-Lewis is flawless in both the iconic moments and the personal trials.
It also helps that he has a great supporting cast at his side. This includes Sally Fields as the troubled Mary Todd Lincoln who feels she alone bears the grief of a lost son while her husband has to be the politician the people love. Then there is Strathairn as Seward, the loyal aide to the President but a firm believer that peace should be sought out over anything else including the Amendment.
Still, the greatest supporting player is that of Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the Radical Republicans in Congress who wants full equality for former slaves. Stevens is a gruff man who has been beaten up by years of politics, but he is still dedicated to his mission of abolishing slavery. Through his tough exterior, the audience also sees the doubt he has, even in Lincoln, to get the amendment passed. Along with Day-Lewis, Jones also deserves an Oscar nod for his performance.
The film does drag from time to time. The dialogue is a bit too heavy in a movie that could have had a little more momentum, but this is not the biggest problem the film could have had had Spielberg decided to go in another direction. Had Spielberg given another film about the legend that is Lincoln, it would have fallen to the wayside with several other films about the 16th President who abolished slavery. Instead, Spielberg skillfully crafts a film that looks at the very human Lincoln who had to contend with the one thing standing in the way of his goals: politics.