There are movies that are fun rides, like this summer’s The Avengers. These popcorn flicks are exciting and engaging and I love them.
Then there are movies for the ages.
Steven Spielberg has made both. Some of the popcorn flicks have been fantastic, like E. T. or the first Jurassic Park movie. Others have been, well, Hook and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
But when he goes for the ages, he shows what he can really do as a filmmaker. He produces movies like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. It can be frustrating, because it shows how much he phones it in sometimes. Fortunately, he did not phone it in for Lincoln.
This is a movie for the ages.
Based on books like Team of Rivals, the plot of the movie is rather odd. Rather than focus on his rise from poverty to become president or the Civil War, it focuses on the political machinations behind the passage of the 13th Amendment to ban slavery. As the war drew to do a close and Lincoln just re-elected to his second term, he decided to make a huge gamble: Push the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives. Though his party controlled the House, there was no guarantee that it pass. The conservative faction of the Republican Party wanted peace with the South above all else and thought passing the amendment would jeopardize the hope of ending the war. But even if they got 100% of the republican vote, they would still need twenty defections from the democrats in order to get the two-thirds majority to pass it.
Lincoln decides that passing the amendment is too important to wait and pushes for a vote before the end of the lame duck session.
It may seem odd to think of political horse trading for votes as a gripping narrative, especially at a time when the country is burnt out on politics. But go. It is worth it.
The performances are fantastic. Daniel Day Lewis makes you believe that he is Lincoln. He has the mannerism of the Illinois backwoodsman down perfectly. When he tells one of Lincoln’s homespun stories, he pulls the viewers in and makes them believe they are in the presence of the great man of history. At times, he veers to edge of going over the top, but then pulls back just enough to capture the natural eloquence of Lincoln.
You can feel his inner turmoil as he wrestles with his conscience an deals with the vicious politics of his day, his bipolar wife, and Robert, his eldest son’s insistence on joining the army.
Sally Field also turns in the performance of a life time as Mary Todd Lincoln. Again, it’s a role that could easily have lead to scenery-chewing, but Fields gives it just enough to convey her grief over losing one son to typhus and her fear of losing Robert if he joins the army. Another stellar performance came from Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the “radical” republicans who is determined to see slavery banned at all costs and his raucous debates on the House floor make today’s Congress look positively gentile by comparison.
There are points where it drags, but it’s a movie that brings the era to life. Go see it. You won’t be disappointed.