I went through a phase, as nearly all boys do, of being engrossed by war movies. I watched every war movie I could find. Old John Wayne classics like The Sands of Iwo Jima, hidden gems like Van Johnson in Go For Broke! about the Japanese-American soldiers of 442nd Regimental Combat Team, foreign war films like Anzacs and Gallipoli from Australia or Come and See from Russia… but all of them were combat action heavy films. Little time was spent on the decisions behind the lines on strategy and thinking beyond the battles themselves. However, Lincoln is a movie using the US Civil War as a backdrop for a portrait of a man struggling not only to bring America’s bloodiest conflict to a close, but of a struggle for the soul of the country. Would the war be fought to preserve the Union or for a higher purpose, the end of slavery?
Most films which deal with political wrangling reinforce the old quote from Otto von Bismark, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them made.” Director Steven Spielberg and writer Tony Kurshner work hard to keep the political wrangling at something of a distance. Additionally Lincoln posed a problem all historical dramas face. The events, if only the broad strokes, are known to the audience. We know how it is going to end. The Union wins the Civil War, the 13th Amendment is passed abolishing slavery and Lincoln is assassinated in Ford’s Theater by John Wilkes Booth. The only thing left to the filmmakers to entertain and enthrall the audience is the manner in which the film reaches these checkpoints.
The first impression one gets of Lincoln is the attention to detail. Daniel Day-Lewis fully inhabits Lincoln. His mannerisms, his folksy manner of speaking, his iron-strong core of conviction as well as his pragmatism, and his physical presence… are like looking through time itself to view the White House of 1864/5. The entire cast turns in truly outstanding performances, but three are worthy of note here beyond Daniel Day-Lewis: David Strathairn as Secretay of State William Seward, and President Lincoln’s most trusted friend, Sally Field as the fragile wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones as the powerful Pennsylvania Representative and ardent abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. Interesting trivia: Thaddeus Stevens apparently did have a 20+ year relationship with his mixed-race housekeeper who his neighbors considered his common law wife.
And yes, Thaddeus Stevens did wear a wig that bad and even better, yes, he was that good of an orator.
Lincoln is a lengthy and slowly paced film, but the reward is a there…outstanding performances beautifully shot that provide a window on a pivotal event in American history. Do yourself a favor and see this film.