Note: There are some mild spoilers in this review about a historical biopic. Nothing that you shouldn’t already know, but more about how the movie looks and feels. You’ve been warned.
I feel like I should take some time before writing this review, that I should watch the movie at least one more time before putting my thoughts down. But I just have to write something. But first, a picture:
That’s me with the Lincolns, or at least approximations of them. The nice guy working at the Lincoln Library in Springfield took it for me when I swung by in January when I was moving back to Utah. It’s a goofy picture, I know, but I think it helps to capture my feelings towards our 16th president. I used to think that I loved the words more than the man, the romanticized version of who he is and what he did for the country. But after watching Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln, I think I have a new found appreciation for the man himself.
Don’t get me wrong. I realize that the movie is still just a portrayal of the man, and for all we know, could be slightly inaccurate. Lincoln only had one child survive to adulthood, Robert, and there were no Lincoln grandchildren that would remember what it was like to be at their grandfather’s knee as he told a story. Had we had these sorts of accounts, however, I now like to think that Lincoln was exactly as Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed him.
Maybe it was just the way the movie was shot. Most of the scenes featuring Lincoln seemed to keep his face in profile or slightly off-center, reminding me of all the historical photos that exist of Lincoln. But it was more than just that. Day-Lewis was absorbed into his Lincoln performance, and I never felt like it was an actor playing a role. I watch a lot of movies, and it has been quite some time since an actor truly became the role he was playing. I know Daniel Day-Lewis is somewhat famous for staying in character and all that, but…I can’t really describe it.
And the voice! A lot of early reviews and press have revolved around the voice that DDL used to portray Lincoln. There obviously isn’t a recording of Lincoln speaking, but contemporary accounts always mention that his voice was high and nasally, and people often wondered how he was able to project it so far when speaking, especially when living in an era without amplification. Again, now when I think of Lincoln speaking, I will hear it in Day-Lewis’s voice. The movie didn’t use the Gettysburg Address, at least not with Lincoln saying it, but they did present a portion of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. Pretty powerful stuff when delivered by a guy that looks like Lincoln in a scene that recreates the event.
So yeah. I liked what they did with Lincoln. But the rest of the movie was just as great. The movie is around 2 1/2 hours long, with about 80% of it dedicated to January 1865 and the fight for the passage of the 13th Amendment, which would end slavery in the United States. Lincoln is working with a lame duck session* of the House of Representatives, featuring many Democrats that had just lost the election in November of the previous year.
*Back in the day, new presidential and congressional terms started on March 4th, when everyone was sworn in. These days, this happens on January 20th.
A lot of folks wanted the president to wait for the war to be over to pass the amendment, but Lincoln believed that the amendment would help to end the war. Through various backroom “negotiating,” Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward were trying to get the required 2/3 majority vote to pass the amendment. Meanwhile, the Confederacy has peace commissioners waiting to discuss peace and Lincoln is also dealing with his crazy wife Mary Todd Lincoln. Nevertheless, (spoiler alert) the amendment passes within Lincoln’s deadline, the Civil War ends at Appomattox Courthouse, and Lincoln is assassinated and dies. Granted, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea.
Great performances all around from a bunch of actors you have seen in seemingly every other movie. Sally Field is great as Mary Lincoln, who is (still) struggling over the death of son Willie and headaches caused by a cart accident. David Strathairn plays Seward quite admirably, and James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson are excellent as the “vote getters” for the amendment. One of the greatest performances — other than the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis — is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the Radical Republicans and an important part of getting the amendment passed. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, and if you like beards, you are also in for a treat. So. Many. Beards!
Before ending this post, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I went into the movie expecting to cry. For some reason, I get really emotional when it comes to Abraham Lincoln, especially when it surrounds his assassination. When walking through the Lincoln Library, as well as his tomb, I got emotional when viewing the mock up of what it looked like when he laid in state after the assassination. It just has that kind of affect on me.
There were a few times when I got emotional during the movie: when the amendment passed and everyone was so excited about it, when the Lincoln’s were riding in the carriage and talking about visiting the Holy Land, and when Seward’s famous last words were uttered upon the death of Lincoln. But the tears really flowed when he was walking down the hall at the White House for the last time on his way to the carriage that would ultimately take him to Ford’s Theatre. It was a great shot, and DDL’s Lincoln gait really portrayed a man that had been weighed down by four years of a very costly war. Thankfully, Spielberg opted not to show the assassination take place, or else I would have been sobbing like some TwiHard at the end of Breaking Dawn: Part 2. But it still got me in the feels.
Such a wonderful movie, and a great portrait of a man that I truly admire. I think Spielberg and Day-Lewis should just make Lincoln biopics for the foreseeable future, covering everything else that happened in his life. Failing that, this film will go down for a very long time as the seminal Lincoln biography, even if it only covers the last four months of his life. If any local friends are going to see the movie, please invite me. I might just come along.
Until next time…