Daniel Day-Lewis portraying the president in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn
Run Time: 120 min
Rating: Rated PG-13
Fresh on the heels of what seemed like a way too lengthy political campaign season and a nail-biter of a presidential and congressional elections, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” comes to a theater near you. Maybe Spielberg is hopeful that voters are not too politically weary and that his film may actually ride on the momentum of the election, or maybe he’s just confident that the subject matter combined with his signature filmmaking style will draw in the crowds. Well, maybe crowds is overreaching, but some sort of small specific audience to be drawn in. Firstly, let’s set the record straight about what type of movie this is, or is not. It is not a biopic as the title would have you to believe. Although President Abe Lincoln, as portrayed handedly by Daniel Day-Lewis, is the central character, this is not a story of his life, but rather a historical/political drama pertaining to the events leading up to the passage of the 13th amendment, the abolishment of slavery.
The drama takes place in the midst of the Civil War, for which the president and the country have a growing intolerance due the country’s great divide and mounting casualties. Most feel the president’s focus should be on winning and ending the war. Despite that, he feels an immediate moral pressure to initiate legislation that will emancipate the slaves before the war’s end, and thus not be dependent upon the frailty of peace accords. Before the matter can be brought up to Congress, he must rally the support of his cabinet, which proves to be a battle in itself. Once won, the ensuing political battle among lawmakers on the issue takes its toll on all involved.
Surrounding the president as his cabinet and political allies and foes is a cast of racially divided, cantankerous, ambitious politicians and advisors. For this, Spielberg brought in a bevy of A-list character actors, such as Tommy Lee Jones as the volatile political advocate and staunch abolitionist Thaddeous Stevens, David Strathairn as William Seward, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, and providing some comedic relief, James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, a sort of lobbyist of the times.
Award-winning writer Tony Kushner lends his penmanship to the project. This is the second collaboration between Kushner and Spielberg, who delivered the compelling and under-appreciated drama “Munich” in 2005. “Lincoln” lacks the energy that “Munich” excelled in, and risks losing much of its viewers within the first half hour. While the topic is definitely important and interesting, and all the performances are believable, the medium is wrong. It feels better suited for television as a PBS or HBO mini-series, and I’m sure in the hands of a less prestigious director, that’s the best this project could have hoped for.
In any event, this movie feeds an instinct in all of us to know more about the politics behind the iconic figures. If you still have a craving for such drama, with or without the presidential angle, consider the following selections:
The West Wing (all 7 seasons)
All the President’s Men
Argo (in theaters now)