If you go to see this movie expecting to see much of the Civil War, you’ll be sorely disappointed. This movie isn’t about the Civil War. It’s not even about Abraham Lincoln per se, as I’m fairly certain that Lincoln’s life consisted of more than just the first four months of 1865. One could even make the case the title “Lincoln” is not entirely appropriate, and it instead might should have been named “Passage of the 13th Amendment,” as this is primarily a film about the political process surrounding that event. However, if you go to see it expecting to see one of the greatest film actors of our generation giving a tour-de-force performance, your money will be well-spent.
Daniel Day-Lewis amazes me once again, as he so disappears into Abraham Lincoln that I don’t even see the performer. I was most impressed by his voice – I don’t recall him ever having that speaking voice in any of his roles before, and it’s very different from many of the gruff-voiced portrayals of Lincoln we’ve seen before. His soft-spoken demeanor and gentle movements wonderfully communicate the kind soul we’ve all believed to inhabit Lincoln.
Steven Spielberg doesn’t show us Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, or his being murdered at Ford’s Theater. We’ve seen all that before. Spielberg shows us Lincoln speaking to a couple of soldiers waiting to board a train, to his secretaries in the middle of the night, to some telegraph operators waiting for his instructions to them, and to General Grant while seated together in rocking chairs on a front porch. We see him lying on the floor before a fireplace with his youngest son. We see him fight with his wife, and with his eldest son. These are the things that humanize Lincoln to us, perhaps more so than any other president.
As we see the job-offering, the favor-promising and the outright bullying involved in his securing the necessary votes to pass the 13th Amendment, one wonders just how we of this time in history can say that politics is dirtier than ever. Looked to me like business as usual. Well, with the possible exception of the bullying being done in much prettier language than our current president’s cronies and stooges used for cramming Obamacare down the country’s throat. Whenever I see a well-made period-piece film of the 19th Century, I leave the theater feeling that I missed out on the language of that time. People were much more well-spoken in those days (or at least educated people were), so much so that even calling someone else the most vile and despicable names, it sounded so much more pleasant.
As usual, Spielberg and his usual cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, have crafted a beautiful film. The sets and locations here are fantastic and completely convincing (I honestly don’t know how much computer-generated assistance there was in recreating this time and place, if any at all). I foresee Oscar nominations for photography, set design and costumes without a doubt. The rest of the notable cast, from Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field to Joseph Gordon-Leavitt and Jared Harris, are excellent as well.
Some folks I know describe the movie’s pace as slow, and while I can understand that sentiment, it seems to have a bit of a negative tone to it that I’m reluctant to agree with it. “Deliberate” is a better adjective, as the process of politics is a deliberate one (hence parliamentary debate being called “deliberation”). The movie’s pace was very absorbing, and I was certainly never bored. Just pay attention, people – if you want a faster pace, rent a Bruce Willis movie. While this movie may not be the definitive depiction of Abraham Lincoln’s life, it should certainly become the definitive depiction of this event in our nation’s history.