History comes alive

Magnetic Daniel Day-Lewis propels Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln into Oscar contention

Magnetic Daniel Day-Lewis propels Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln into Oscar contention

There are few filmmakers more adept at making history come alive than Steven Spielberg. Although he’s regarded as the father of the modern blockbuster, Spielberg has gravitated toward historical films since the mid-‘80s; some of his greatest hits include Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich and last year’s War Horse.

He’s back at it again with Lincoln, tackling a specific portion the life of Abraham Lincoln, whom many consider to be the greatest president the United States has ever known. 

 Although he’s regarded as the father of the modern blockbuster, Spielberg has gravitated toward historical films since the mid-‘80s.

Lincoln (portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis) had no shortage of admirable qualities. And while there are many aspects of his presidency that could be considered film-worthy, Lincoln mostly focuses on just one month: January 1865.

That was the month when Lincoln was trying to get the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which would ban slavery, passed by the House of Representatives.

As such, the film is very political and dialog-heavy. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner (who also wrote Munich) immerse the audience in the behind-the-scenes wheelings and dealings between Lincoln, his cabinet, lobbyists and the Republicans and Democrats in the House.

Even though the end result is never in doubt, the process is fascinating, as it details what few beyond Lincoln historians know: Lincoln was actually torn between ending the Civil War as soon as possible and getting the 13th Amendment passed — two desires that couldn’t necessarily coexist.

The film also shows deep partisanship between the two parties, making it clear that the concept has a long history in the U.S. It was a good strategy to release the film post-election, as many pundits could have seized upon the fact that Lincoln’s party – the Republicans – are the good guys in the film, while the Democrats are vilified for their opposition to the amendment. While much of their bickering and negotiating is interesting, things do tend to get a bit dry at times, as there’s only so much you can do to dress up such proceedings.

 Lincoln shows deep partisanship between the two parties, making it clear that the concept has a long history in the U.S.

What sustains the film’s momentum is the acting of Day-Lewis. He is, quite simply, magnetic. The steps he takes to inhabit a character during filming are legendary, and the results speak for themselves. He imbues Lincoln with huge presence, charisma and stateliness. If Lincoln were actually like how Day-Lewis portrays him, you’d have to have been fool not to follow him.

The majority of the rest of the cast elevates their game thanks to Day-Lewis’ example. David Strathairn, James Spader, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes and others all turn in splendid performances. Sally Field does the same as Mary Todd Lincoln, although it is a tad disconcerting that she is 10 years older than Day-Lewis and portraying someone who was actually in her late thirties at the time.

Quibbles aside, Lincoln is Spielberg’s best film since Munich, which came out in 2005. It’s obvious that Kushner’s words inspired Spielberg to match him in the visual department, although having Day-Lewis clearly doesn’t hurt. Lincoln’s campaigning skills worked wonders in 1865, and there’s no doubt that an Oscar campaign is in store for all those involved with Lincoln.

Lincoln movie
Daniel Day-Lewis makes for an uncanny Abraham Lincoln. Photo courtesy of Touchstone Pictures
Lincoln movie
Photo courtesy of Touchstone Pictures
Lincoln movie
Lincoln movie