Spielberg gives us a portrait of a man constantly wrestling with himself, his family and his cabinet as much as any Democrat or Confederate.
Review by David Feltman
“Blood has been spilt to afford us this moment.”
Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” picks up about three quarters into its source material. Rather than tracing the entire political careers of Lincoln and his cabinet, or even just Lincoln himself, the biopic chooses wisely to focus its attention almost entirely to the passing of the 13th Amendment. So rather than a sprawling story of the rise of the 16th president, we are treated to a tale of backroom politics where votes are traded for bribes and appointments when integrity isn’t enough.
Aside from the president and a couple of ardent abolitionists, virtually everyone in the film is against passing the amendment. The stress on Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is constant as he presses through morally ambiguous spaces on the power of his convictions. Spielberg gives us a portrait of a man constantly wrestling with himself, his family and his cabinet as much as any Democrat or Confederate.
“Lincoln” boasts an all-star cast including Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Jackie Earle Haley and Tommy Lee Jones, and they all do a great job. But Day-Lewis as the gentle, soft-spoken and tortured president completely overshadows his fellow cast members in an Oscar-worthy performance. Only Tommy Lee Jones is able to hold his own against Day-Lewis’ overpowering presence, and only then because he’s given some of the best bits of dialogue. Quick, comic and cantankerous, Jones delivers lines like “Slavery is the only insult to natural law you fatuous nincompoop,” dry and matter-of-fact.
The film occasionally hits saccharine and sentimental notes, but Spielberg does his best to keep the story free of whitewash, especially when it comes to racial attitudes. Spielberg manages to build suspense when the final votes are cast despite the fact that the outcome is known. But once the amendment is passed, the film rushes forward to Lincoln’s assassination, skipping entirely over the synchronized attempts against William Seward and Sir Not-Appearing-in-this-Film, Vice President Andrew Johnson, ending abruptly with little denouement. It’s a weak ending to an otherwise powerful film. “Lincoln” has a few shortcomings but the performances alone are worth the price of admission.