One of the things I’ve found most remarkable about the Civil War is the physical change that overcame President Lincoln during his time in office. The distinguished, thoughtful lawyer from Illinois who first arrived in Washington wasted away over four years; by 1865, he was virtually a smiling skeleton with a mop of bedhead hair.
This is the Abraham Lincoln that Daniel Day-Lewis brings to life in Steven Spielberg’s new biopic, Lincoln. Newly elected to a second term, ravaged by the war and by his own personal grief, Lincoln is as far removed from the marble Lincoln Memorial icon as you can imagine. He is brilliantly human.
The story centers around Lincoln’s attempts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, which would abolish slavery. Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals, Lincoln illuminates the clashing political forces Lincoln had to navigate. The war is an ever-present backdrop, but Spielberg takes viewers onto the battlefield only twice, for short stints. This is a war movie that’s not really about the war.
Lincoln lacks any Spielberg razzle-dazzle—which, if anything, proves Spielberg’s genius as a director. He assembled a spectacular cast and was smart enough to stay out of their way and let them do their work. There’s not a clunker in the bunch.
In little more than a cameo, Jackie Earle Haley makes a pitch-perfect appearance as C.S.A. vice president Alexander Stephens, and Hal Holbrook (who once played Lincoln himself in the 1985 TV miniseries North & South) makes a compassionate Preston Blair, founder of the GOP. Even Gulliver McGrath, as young Tad, transcends the typical “kid performance” with one of the movie’s most powerful scenes when Tad finds out about his father’s assassination (a scene Spielberg approaches sideways with poignant results).
Tommy Lee Jones as Rep. Thaddeaus Stevens and David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward turn in especially solid performances. In many ways, Stevens’ colorful yin counterbalances Seward’s stolid yang—and that’s just the contrast between Lincoln’s political allies.
Sally Field, as Mary Todd Lincoln, is nothing short of brilliant. Typically maligned by history as bat-shit crazy, Mary Todd comes across as sympathetic in Field’s hands. For the first time, I had a clear sense of what made the woman tick. Although selfish at times, Mary Todd’s motivations at least become understandable. At turns shrewd and canny, she eviscerates Stevens (who makes a game of eviscerating others), and at times she even lights up the screen. Look for an Oscar nomination come January.
In a field of stellar performances, though, Day-Lewis dominates the screen in the very same sort of understated way his Lincoln dominates. Lincoln shuffles as he walks, stooped and often draped in a shawl-like blanket. He looks haggard and unkempt, with a wan complexion and sallow cheeks.
But he can always conjure a story, always pull a folksy bit of wisdom from his stovepipe, always tap into what seems to be an indomitable spirit. As worn and exhausted as he always looks to be, Lincoln always has more gas to go.
Spielberg captures Lincoln’s wily political acumen and his complicated legal mind. Only once, though, does Lincoln rise up to throw around the weight of his office—“clothed in immense power,” as he says. The rest of the time, he forges onward, exhausted, directed by his firmness in the right as God gives him to see the right.
His oldest son, Robert, wants to enlist, but Mary Todd, who’s already lost one son, Willie, doesn’t want to lose another and so forbids his enlistment. Lincoln finds himself caught between his wife’s fears, his son’s need for self-respect, and his own duties as commander in chief. The conflict culminates in Lincoln’s most surprising outburst.
Willie’s death, in turns out, defines the family interactions, and Lincoln is at his most human when he finally talks with Mary about it. This is the grief that Lincoln must carry closest to his heart even as he grieves for the 600,000 other sons America has lost. “We must try to be happier,” Lincoln later tells his wife as the war comes to an end. “We must. We’ve been miserable for so long.”
If the movie had a failing, it’s that Spielberg skipped over the Second Inaugural—which contains my favorite Lincoln lines, “With malice toward none, with charity toward all.” To my great surprise and relief, though, Spielberg rectified the situation in fitting fashion.
Lincoln was so good, I’m already trying to figure when I’ll be able to work a second viewing into my schedule this week. It’s a tour de force of acting, and a master class in understated directing. While this particular portrait of Lincoln might fall short of Mt. Rushmore or the five-dollar bill, it achieves so much more. It reminds us that Lincoln, that greatest of men, was a man just like the rest of us.