“This isn’t usual, Mr. Pendleton. This is history.”
Images of brother fighting brother, President Lincoln orating the Emancipation Proclamation, and his tragic demise at the end of John Wilkes Booth’s gun are conjured when most think about the Civil War. For many the abolition of slavery was merely one of the resulting terms of surrender on behalf of the Confederates, the goal of the Union and the Republican Party from the start finally becoming reality. But the details of this historic event are never really explained save a couple dates, numbers, and names bandied about as heroes and true progressive visionaries. Well, all that changes with Steven Spielberg‘s decade-long quest to portray our nation’s venerable, sixteenth president on the big screen coming to fruition in Lincoln.
Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin‘s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, it was the project’s third screenwriter—playwright Tony Kushner—who succeeded in giving his director the type of story necessary to do its subject justice. Rather than slog through a bloated film discussing his childhood, campaigning, and full presidency, the idea to hone in on the two months leading up to the House of Representatives’ vote on abolition was made. We wouldn’t be hitched to the chaotic frontlines of war like Saving Private Ryan or the regimented judicial arena of Amistad. Instead the setting turned to the oft-overlooked legislative branch of government and the petty, vengeful power plays of egotistical men either fighting for the good of the people, themselves, or a mixture of both.
Immersed into this tumultuous time, we’re made privy to a ton of information that I for one don’t remember ever learning in the confines of my local public school. So much of Kushner’s script is populated by exposition and yet none comes across preachy or hamfisted. Listening to Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) explain his motivations on why he needed to pass the thirteenth amendment before the end of the war gives an authentic look at the constructive squabbling of the Cabinet, his conflicted leader, and the very slippery slope tread to traverse legal hoops and moral quandaries. Honest Abe made concessions and compromises with his peers, the people voting for re-election, and his conscience. If labeling African Americans as property helped free them at a time of war, he’d do what was necessary.
The film doesn’t only stick to its namesake, however, despite his troubles spreading wider than slavery into the private sector with a son begging to enlist (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and a wife hysterically distraught over the death of their third boy three years prior (Sally Field). He is the calming, unwavering pillar of strength deliberately weighing his options in distant silence as he rapidly ages underneath the warmth of a trusted blanket, but it’s those he entrusts to find twenty extra votes who often transport the plot to Congress. William Seward (David Strathairn) desperately tries to keep the president on task with unfiltered council; James Ashley (David Costabile) attempts to unite his fractured party; and the trio of W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes), and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) work tirelessly to convert any Democrats they can.
The House is shown as a theatrical farce with loud, brash men like Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) and George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie) lobbing insults at their opposition as the formidable stoicism of Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) easily awakens to throw vicious barbs right back. Alongside them are Congressman voted out and biding time like Clay Hutchins (Walton Goggins) and Alexander Coffroth (Boris McGiver) adding some of the film’s surprisingly effective situational humor and the conflicted intelligence of men like George Yeaman (Michael Stuhlbarg) reconciling his heart and mind to the decision of freedom. And with Hal Holbrook‘s Preston Blair lording over the conservative vote despite being a regular citizen, you see how many egos had a horse in the race and the myriad personalities Lincoln needed to rein in.
My friend joked afterwards Lincoln‘s success could cause a rise in C-SPAN ratings once audience members are made aware of just how crazed the floor of Congress can get. Much of the action is set between these warring political parties and their jockeying for power during one of our country’s defining moments and it retains a level of suspense despite the result being known. Spielberg has always been a master manipulator and while he finds a bit more subtlety here than usual—yes, relatively speaking—he still joins composer John Williams in controlling our every emotion through carefully constructed cinematic moments. Brief scene-stealing vignettes of Spader recruiting Democrats add much needed comedy while the endlessly anecdotal speeches of Lincoln infuse a sense of gravitas in their relevant metaphor.
This piece is heavily reliant on the performances used to tell its story and no one disappoints. Field is a powerhouse of duality showing a fearsome fragility behind closed doors and a sunny yet biting disposition outside; Jones does what he does best by instilling an almost impossible humanity in a character whose words reflect it while demeanor surely does not; and Day-Lewis proves his transformative powers once again. Abraham Lincoln is brought to life with the soft-spoken voice of a saint—even-keeled against the virtually insurmountable turmoil at home and the office—and the hunched, frail visage of a contemplative man saving his energy until regality is required. So delicately introspective, every move made is one he’d repeat. Yes, there is regret his actions may be misguided, but he finds the confidence to stand tall nonetheless.
And with the cast expanding to include Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens and Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant down in Virginia, the multiple fronts of this underdog fight show it wasn’t merely a war of words at the capital. An opening scene in the wet mud of human brutality writhing in homicidal pain depicts the battle’s intimacy of black against white vitriol; White House staff Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) and William Slade (Western New York resident Stephen McKinley Henderson) show the patient waiting amidst the old, white men holding their lives in the balance. It’s a true tale of heroism and a victory over impossible odds helping set us on a path towards equality. Lincoln may have been the man pulling the strings, but Spielberg and Kushner rightfully show the truth to be so much bigger.
 Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Abraham Lincoln in Touchstone Pictures’ Lincoln (2012)
 Tommy Lee Jones stars as Thaddeus Stevens in Touchstone Pictures’ Lincoln (2012)
 Sally Field stars as Mary Todd Lincoln in Touchstone Pictures’ Lincoln (2012)