How long have we been waiting for Spielberg’s Lincoln? Wikipedia tells me that Liam Neeson was cast to play the man back in 2005, no score and seven years ago. Back then, John and I said it was perfect timing for a Lincoln biopic, as he was a popular talking point for politicians at that time, with the Democrats poised to take back congress and the most exciting presidential election of my lifetime looming. Since then, politics have only become more polarizing, until this year’s election, when voters all around the country said they had had enough of partisan bickering and wanted the government to start getting shit done. Maybe it’s always a perfect time for a Old Abe movie, even if we do still have the bitter taste of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in our mouths.
As much as this is a story about our 16th president, it is a story of passing of the 13th amendment. It begins on the battlefield, in a gruesome scene that reminded me that Spielberg has an amazing talent for showing the brutality of combat. We meet Abe shortly after, he is already the man most of us think of – calm, intelligent, a born leader. It is late 1865, he has already won reelection and the Civil War is nearing its end. But before that can happen, the president needs to get the 13th amendment through the House of Representatives and abolish slavery for good. So he begins the process of accruing votes and winning over those that would support the amendment.
Daniel Day-Lewis plays Abe, and that’s probably enough for you to know how good the performance is. He conveys the weariness of the president, a man constantly at odds with everyone and everything about doing what is right. Tommy Lee Jones is Thaddeus Stevens, the thirteenth amendment’s chief supporter in the house, and he’s a ton of fun. The rest of the cast it top notch – from Sally Field to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, everyone in this movie is someone, it seems.
With a title as broad as Lincoln, I expected to get an overview of the man’s entire life, but really, the focus is just on the amendment. I would argue the movie ends shortly after the amendment’s passage, with a quiet, dignified moment. Spielberg goes on a little further than that, but he didn’t need to. I guess that’s the thing with Civil War movies, they have to be long.
By only seeing Lincoln so late in his life, when the myth has already gotten bigger than his sizable frame, he is given somewhat of a mythic stature. He’s portrayed down-to-earth and not above playing politics, but he also seems to always be the smartest man in the room, by a country mile. The kind of leader we all wish we had. I’d like to think I’m a pretty patriotic person and a movie like this, with a deep, obvious admiration for our heritage, is something I can eat right up.