Lincoln is what you might describe as a biopic with a difference. Director Steven Spielberg chooses to train the camera on the last four months of America’s beloved (sixteenth) President Abraham Lincoln’s life in 1865, as he endeavors, with almost superhuman effort, to abolish slavery before the Civil War ends. We don’t see a young Abe Lincoln; this is a stately, fatherly President, going off into rambling stories to elucidate a point or spending sleepless nights wandering around the White House while he worries about his nation and grieves over his dead son. And yet, this is an unforgettable portrait of a man who rewrote history, mainly because actor Daniel Day-Lewis steps into the President’s shoes and feels the character in his bones.
The film itself is dense and difficult to work through, steeped as it is in talky scenes as Lincoln tries every trick in his book, including horse-trading and some twisting of facts, to get the amendment passed. Despite Oscar-nominated writer Tony Kushner’s wonderful wordplay, you often feel as if you’re trapped in a classroom, wrestling with dry history.
Things pick up in the second half as the House debates the proposed Bill, and Spielberg works in tense drama into the scenes of final vote-counting. Much of this has to do with Tommy Lee Jones’s electric performance as radical anti-slavery Congressman Thaddeus Stevens; the actor walks away with all the best lines and moments. Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife Mary, and the mother-in-mourning, does a fine job, but it’s hard even for an actress of her caliber to not be overshadowed in the presence of Daniel Day-Lewis.
Here is a man born to play Lincoln with all his layers; an adored President, a man so tormented by the Civil War that he “ages ten years in four”, a raconteur, a clever politician and a father both playful and stern to his sons. What stays with you in the end, is Lincoln’s steely moral compass – so focused on abolishing the inhuman practice of slavery that he poured every bit of himself into that ambition.
I’m going with three and a half out of five for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. It’s far from an easy watch, but its important story and the towering central performance demands that you make time for it.