Telling the story of an historical icon is at once both daunting and simple. Daunting, because icons are owned by the masses, existing disparately in each of our imaginations. We own our icons, and when those icons are so thoroughly tied to our country’s history, we own them from a very young age. Yet this same disconnect between the truth of an individual and the public’s partial idea of that individual makes the task simple–take what you know to be fact and build on it. In Lincoln, Steven Spielberg has created a picture of the man established in fact, but accommodating of the Director’s own vision; a depiction that articulates the details of our nation’s greatest leader–from his spindly gait and agile mind to his quiet, cogent authority–while fully articulating the political swamp he navigated en route to one of our country’s most pivotal moments: the abolition of slavery with the 13th Amendment.
Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) spent the last several months of his presidency traversing a gauntlet. With the help of his Republican compatriots–mainly his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a tenured member of the House and devoted abolitionist–Lincoln determined to pursue the end of the four-year-old Civil War through the abolition of slavery, a wildly unpopular notion among Democrats. Abolishing slavery would, it was said, ruin the economy by effectively desolating the South’s work force, but even more hyperbolically, it was feared that a 13th amendment would degrade the quality of humanity in America. Ignoring the shortsightedness of his peers and his constituency, Lincoln employed every last man and method at his disposal to unite his struggling nation—a unity that could not be achieved without a healthy dose of Washington politicking, and a remarkable degree of diplomacy.
Lincoln was a man of deliberate action, and one of Spielberg’s grandest feats here is avoiding his own penchant for schmaltz, allowing the President’s grinding execution of the work to sit front and center. Lincoln faced unprecedented dilemmas, and the film’s acknowledgement of not just the struggle, but the tirelessness and pure devotion he maintained throughout the ordeal reveals the truth at the heart of this story: Washington’s perpetual gridlock requires a moderate and patient hand, which, in his time, Abraham Lincoln provided. Surely Spielberg wants modern audiences to relate this tale to our own current political climate, yet Lincoln never seems intended for us alone. Themes of bigotry and hatred, or paranoia and fear of the unknown are–as evidenced in any history lesson–universal to mankind, and while these belligerencies tend to guide the conversation far more often than they should, they can and have been weakened by the aspirations of a solitary, stout-hearted individual—in this case an individual depicted expertly by Daniel Day-Lewis, in the sort of performance that suggests a truly limitless range.
Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is infinitely tired, yet ceaselessly engaged, whether it be with his divisive cabinet, his emotionally-wrought wife, or his hot-tempered son. His is an omnipresent authority, delivered with the assuredness of an intellectual dynamo and the good-nature of a country boy. Lincoln has the sovereign presence we’ve come to recognize in our leaders (on film and TV, at least), yet he is, by all accounts, an unimposing figure. His gawky assemblage and perpetual fatigue should limit his effectiveness, when they seem to do just the opposite, endearing those around him and disarming those who would oppose him. This is a masterful performance, and along with amplifying the work of all who share the screen with him, will inevitably tie itself to our perception of who Abraham Lincoln truly was.
Lincoln goes as Daniel Day-Lewis goes, and so it goes quite well. Spielberg’s commitment to rounding out the character results in a bit too much family time (how can we be expected to truly care about Lincoln’s bi-polar wife or entitled son when the flip side of the coin is SLAVERY?!), and a finale preoccupied with tying all the loose ends has you leaving the theater a bit less inspired than you ought to be, but Lincoln is an otherwise stellar film. It is powerfully acted and lovingly fashioned, with Spielberg’s enthusiasm evident in every last frame. It meticulously assembles a cast of historical figures, many of whom deserve their own stories. It is set with care, eager to present the past as it was, from the muddy roads to the magnificent beards, couching it all in authentically dim and drafty confines. Lincoln is a history lesson imparted by a true fan of history, and while it rests so heavily on the shoulders of perhaps our greatest acting talent, it remains a thoroughly historic collaboration.