What do we expect from a biopic (biographical motion picture)? A well-deserved tribute to the person it profiles? A rousing performance from an experienced actor? A history lesson offering advice for our time? Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is all of these, to be sure, but it’s also more than that. Spielberg made sure that his biopic of Abraham Lincoln would still be a compelling story.
Unlike many biopics, Lincoln resists the temptation to make its subject into a god. Last year’s The Iron Lady, for example, was a great performance by Meryl Streep, but not much of a movie. By contrast, Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln feels like a real inhabitant of Spielberg’s film, someone who could truly be challenged by his political opponents. A lionized historical character is made relatable, not placed on a pedestal to admire. And it’s for that reason that Lincoln is one of the best films of the year.
The film covers the last months of Lincoln’s life, as the Civil War draws to a close and Lincoln fights with his cabinet and the House of Representatives over the Thirteenth Amendment. The amendment, of course, would bring the end of slavery in the United States, two years after Lincoln’s historic Emancipation Proclamation.
Lincoln is fighting battles on all sides: political skirmishes, military engagements and family conflicts. While his pro-slavery opponents in the house call him a tyrant, the Civil War rages on, claiming more lives by the day. And his eldest son Robert desperately wants to enlist in the army, a desire that drives a wedge between Lincoln and his wife Mary.
Even if you know your American history, it’s easy to get drawn into the drama. Many of us know that the Thirteenth Amendment passed in the House on January 31, 1865. But as the voting day draws near, and Lincoln’s cabinet scurries around Washington trying to scare up enough votes, Spielberg applies ever more tension, until even the most fervent history buffs are biting their nails.
For a movie that focuses on such a tumultuous part of the 16th president’s life, Lincoln spends an impressive amount of time with its supporting characters. We begin to understand how eccentric and volatile 19th century Washington was, and how the president made himself available to the general public. Lincoln is not a film that wastes time watching the president brood and strategize in the White House; it shows how Lincoln fit in with the bigger political picture of the time.
Lincoln’s accessible nature is one of the most important parts of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. It’s one thing to look like the man, and to convey the weight of his speeches and stories. And this is done very well – I learn that Day-Lewis worked with his makeup artist for a year to look the part. But Day-Lewis puts even more effort into projecting the quiet, domestic side of the character – the one that is so hard to grasp with modern leaders.
Lincoln is often seen wandering about the White House with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, telling stories to his men to either put them at ease or explain his strategies. These moments are just as captivating as Lincoln’s impassioned arguments with his cabinet, when he debates the importance of both outlawing slavery and ending the war. We get a complete picture of the man, not simply a glowing icon. We even see the less-than-pure tactics (promotions and other promises) Lincoln uses to ensure the Amendment is passed.
As for the message of the film? Read into it how you will. There was certainly as much political discord in Congress in 1865 as there is now. And there are a few laughs to be had in Lincoln from the depiction of the Republican Party as the good guys. But Spielberg’s picture should be enjoyed first as the story of Lincoln’s work to reunite the nation. Healing the country was not a solo effort, and neither is the focus of this film. Lincoln gets four stars out of four.
What did you think of Lincoln? Is it an obvious contender for the coming Academy Awards? Or were you expecting something else? Join the discussion in the comments, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers! You can also browse through my recent reviews here:
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