In a nighttime downpour, two black Union troopers, survivors of a fierce opening battle scene in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” brace President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) with stinging observations about the indignity of not being paid the same as their white comrades and other examples of their unequal treatment in the Army and in Northern society.
After they have their say, two young white troopers standing next to them, gazing at the president with worshipful looks, haltingly recite the Gettysburg Address, but they can’t quite remember all the words. At the end of the scene, one of the black soldiers finishes the recitation flawlessly and with pride and certainty.
Shortly afterward, there is Lincoln, in stocking feet, his long legs elevated and resting on the furniture in the White House living quarters, talking to his wife, Mary (Sally Field), a picture of domesticity. Soon after, he lies on the floor in front of a fire beside his sleeping young son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), a figure of fatherly comfort.
Call him the unexpected Lincoln. Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner (“Angels in America”) and Day-Lewis offer not a worshipful portrait of the Great Emancipator, but rather a layered look at an incredibly complex human being. The Lincoln in “Lincoln” is a man of many parts: engaging storyteller, indulgent father, patient husband of a volatile wife, determined leader, thoughtful patriot, master politician.
Day-Lewis, as is his custom, disappears into the role. In stature and appearance, with masterful makeup, his resemblance to Lincoln is startling. More importantly, he conveys the man’s terrible grief over the loss of his son Willie and over the toll of the seemingly endless war, but also Lincoln’s intelligence, compassion and steely resolve with an unerring sense of authenticity.
Lincoln is revealed gradually. At the end, when Spielberg shows him from behind, alone in frock coat and stovepipe hat, walking down the White House corridor to Ford’s Theatre and into history, we know him as a man, not an icon. It’s a remarkable achievement.
Spielberg and Kushner faced a daunting task in deciding how to present Lincoln. The sweep of his career provides enough material for a weeklong miniseries. Spielberg partially based his picture on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-seller “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Lincoln.” But from that weighty book he chose to focus on the section detailing the last four months of Lincoln’s life, in 1865, when he fought for passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. It was a fight to cement into law the essence of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation issued in 1863, and it’s fierce.
This is a movie about sharp-elbow politics, deal-making and vote-buying, and pressure tactics as Lincoln seeks to garner enough votes from a deeply divided House of Representatives to pass the amendment. It’s a movie about compromises made to achieve a greater good, but the nature of the compromises is such that one of Lincoln’s most stalwart supporters, Secretary of State William H. Seward (David Strathairn, playing the role with acid asperity), despairs that the means used to attain the end may soil the soul of the man fighting for that greater good.
The pressure on Lincoln becomes enormous when a secret peace overture from the Confederacy presents him with an agonizing choice: accept the offer and end the terrible bloodshed or persist in seeking to pass the amendment, which the Southerners will never accept. Lincoln’s handling of the dilemma brings all his political skills and morality into play and shows us the essence of his greatness. ‘LINCOLN’
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Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones
Director: Steven Spielberg
Running time: 2:29
Rated: PG-13; language, violence