Some scholars of history refuse to play the What If game. I rather like it. In regards to the American Civil War, we can ask ourselves what might have happened if John Wilkes Booth might have decided to call it quits and leave the country in April 1865 instead of choosing the path he did... or if he had missed his one shot that night in Ford's Theatre, and President Lincoln had lived. Reconstruction would have taken a very different path, civil rights would have been in place firmly as part of it nearly a century earlier... and Martin Luthor King Jr. would have been merely a particularly eloquent preacher.
Director Steven Spielberg has long sought to film a biography of the sixteenth President of the United States; he has had the project in mind for years on end, and finally the film itself has been made and released. Lincoln examines the final months of the President's life, and the final portions of the horrendous Civil War, on a very different battlefield: politics.
The film is drawn from the book Team of Rivals, by historian and writer Doris Kearns Goodwin, with a script by Tony Kushner. It revolves around the fight to pass the thirteenth amendment, abolishing slavery once and for all. The President, played masterfully by Daniel Day-Lewis, struggles to keep the country together in the final months of the war, while his commanding general, U.S. Grant (Jared Harris) works to force the surrender of Confederate forces near Richmond.
The struggle to pass the amendment presents its own challenges in Congress. On one side, fervent abolitionists like Thaddeus Stevens (a scene stealing Tommy Lee Jones) demand the immediate abolition of slavery. On the other, Democrat representatives who are openly hostile to abolition refuse to budge. In the middle are a swirl of voices, such as Francis Blair (the magnificent Hal Holbrook) and Secretary of State William Seward (the always outstanding David Straithairn) trying to find a path to peace- one that might mean setting the amendment aside.
Lincoln argues for the amendment, among his cabinet and among his opposition. He copes with the turmoil in his marriage to Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) and worries about his son Robert (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a staff officer in the army. He's a father who has already buried children, and this- along with his worry for Robert- reflects in his relationship with the remaining son, Tad, still a boy. He finds himself trying to coax, cajole, twist arms, even using political favours in the efforts to bring about the end of slavery once and for all, feeling that a just peace can only happen if slavery is ended forever.
Spielberg is often known for bombast in his films, but here that isn't the case. With few exceptions- early sequences of battle, for instance- the bombast is turned off. He lets the story tell itself, and he assembles the ideal crew for it. The film feels like a Washington of the 1860s, from the look of buildings, the lighting of homes and offices, and the clothing and accessories of people to the infighting and volatile nature of the political atmosphere. Tremendous attention to detail has been shown by the crew. Cinematography seems to carry us into the midst of the political field of battle, drawing us back in time. Spielberg's frequent cinematographer Janusz Kaminski outdid himself with his work on the film, and deserves an Oscar. And John Williams gives an indepth, stirring musical score, once again living up to his reputation as the best Hollywood has to offer in film composers.
Spielberg has assembled an extraordinary cast for the occasion. Holbrook, a legend on stage and screen, gives yet another fine performance as a voice of reason and elder statesman. Straithairn, who always brings depth and layers to a performance, does so again as Seward; I was reminded several times of how in history, Lincoln and Seward started out as rivals for the nomination, and only later became friends. Bruce McGill, a character actor who often appears in the most unlikely of roles, has a fierceness in his role as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton; the performance is similar to Kevin Kline's take on the man in The Conspirator. Harris, previously seen in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows gives the right amount of gruffness to the exceptional General Grant.
Sally Field, who's actually two decades older than Mary Lincoln was at the time, and ten years older than Day-Lewis, nonetheless is right for the role. She looks younger than she is, and Mary, in all pictures of the time, looks older than she was. She plays the part as you'd expect; occasionally very difficult in personality, probably hard to live with, and with traces of the unstability that was to dominate the rest of her life. There's also a warmth and protectiveness at times in the character, as Field and Day-Lewis come across as very natural together. Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing their son Robert does well in the role. As a young actor, he's continuing to grow in interesting roles. As Robert, he plays the young man chafing at the bit, and it's one of the cruel ironies in life that Robert was touched by assassination again, later in life, witnessing the assassination of President Garfield.
Tommy Lee Jones steals pretty much every scene he's in (he's good at that), and should be a lock for Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars. His take on Thaddeus Stevens is that of a passionate, ferocious man of principle. He's a crafty politician, yes, but he's also one of integrity. Jones breathes fire and life into the character.
I have long thought that Daniel Day-Lewis is the best actor around today. My favourite of his roles must be Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans, and I had thought that his lead role in the film In The Name of The Father was him at his best. Playing the President is a performance that matches, if not exceeds both of them, and he should be given the Leading Actor Oscar right now. Day-Lewis has a talent for disappearing into the role, and only takes roles he finds interesting. I've heard he stayed in character even off the set, typical of his methods as an actor. Here he conveys a peculiar sounding voice that is nonetheless the sort of voice commanding attention- something that history records Lincoln himself had.
He plays the President as a man given to making a point through telling a story, a rough around the edges Mid-Western politician, a frontier man. His Lincoln is true to what the man himself would have been like: a highly capable political operator, very intelligent, cunning and crafty, with great instincts about human nature. There are times he comes across as aloof or distant, qualities that feel true to what we know. And there is a strong sense of humour, integrity, and principle to the man. Day-Lewis shows us a man who's exhausted by years of war, but still firmly dedicated to the cause. Close your eyes for a moment, listen to the voice, and you'll wonder if you're listening to the actor, or the man himself. The performance is that good.
This is the best film of the year.