Lincoln begins like a documentary, with text and photographs. However, don’t be fooled by the slow start, because what follows is 153 minutes of compelling storytelling.
Abraham Lincoln is one of America’s most loved presidents, and this film follows the last four months of his life, looking at his family and also one of his most well-known achievements – passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (in essence, to abolish slavery). This means some basic knowledge of the institution of the U.S. government, and the events surrounding the Thirteenth Amendment is helpful, but not crucial, to understanding and appreciating this film.
For a movie set during the Civil War period, Lincoln is surprisingly violence-free. There is a short but brutal scene at the start in which Confederate and Union soldiers hack and shoot and stab at each other, but for the most, the action is in the rooms of the White House and the House of Representatives.
And this action is extraordinarily engaging. While politics isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, the intricacies and scheming in it can be interesting to observe, especially when the petty little differences between men will make the difference between slavery and freedom.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays the 16th president of the United States, and is most certainly on his way to sweeping the awards ceremonies. His president is weary, frail and much older-looking than his 55 years. Lincoln is soft-spoken, down-to-earth, and always has a story to tell his audience, whoever they may be.
His family, on the other hand, is chaotic and far from perfect. Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) plays the dutiful wife in public, but is suitably sassy when the occasion demands. As one of the only speaking women in this film, she is endowed with a complexity and grace that comes through in both her personal life and the political arena her husband inhabits.
Two of the Lincoln sons are featured onscreen: Robert Todd Lincoln (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is studying law but determined to join the army, against his parents’ wishes. In particular, Mary is haunted by the memory of her dead son, Willie, and flatly refuses to let him enlist. It is a sad irony that Robert was the only one to outlive her – Tad Lincoln (Gulliver McGrath), who is a playful child in this film, died at the age of 18.
It’s not just the family who provide support to the President though. Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn) is his close friend and the Amendment’s guide through the House of Representatives, while the leader of the Radical Republican faction, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) leads the charge in the House. Jones’ performance is pitch perfect, especially when facing off against Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood (Lee Pace).
Add to that the not-exactly-above-board actions of Lincoln’s Republican Party agents (James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes), and the movie makes for fascinating, educational viewing. It is a testament to the film’s direction that although we know that slavery was abolished and the Amendment was passed, it is still a suspenseful watch.
However, one of my favourite things about this movie is that even though it is set in a time of very casual, very prolific racism, the screenwriters refrained from adding ‘n*gger’ every two sentences. Very classy.
This is a movie for the American history buffs, but even people who don’t know much about Lincoln will appreciate the five-star cast and political drama and intrigue.
Note: This was first published on Arts Mitten.