It’s not often a historical film can make an old political figure seem vibrant and engaging in a modern sense. Though at times hindered by its pacing, director Steven Spielberg’s most recent film, “Lincoln,” captures the former president in a light that brings an urgent sense of immediacy to the issue of slavery in the 1800s.
The film begins in January 1865 and the Union and Confederacy have already been at war for four years. The main plotline is focused around Lincoln’s determination to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery and peacefully bring the Confederacy back into the Union. Lincoln often consults with his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathaim), who supports the movement for abolition but believes that it is too soon for the Amendment to take place. A team led by W.N. Bilbo (James Spader) is tasked with convincing House Democrats to vote in favor of the 13th Amendment. Tommy Lee Jones portrays a fiery Thaddeus Stevens, who battles a divided Congress to pass the nationwide abolition.
“Lincoln” is not devoid of our 16th president’s personal relationships; Sally Field takes up the role of Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln, and becomes a character with the intensity and recklessness that can only be attributed to a woman whose husband has put the shape of the entire nation at stake. Joseph Gordon-Levitt also delivers a solid performance as Lincoln’s son Robert, who, against his father’s wishes, decides to drop out of college and fight in the Union army because he can no longer stand by while others die on the battlefield.
The most impressive moments in the film were found in its biting, surprisingly humorous script, as well as the outstanding visuals and cinematography that have become a trademark of Spielberg’s works. Beautiful sweeping shots of towns and forests in addition to the many slow pans and movements around conversations between characters pull the audience deeper into the world within “Lincoln.” The authentic detail on sets brought vibrancy to the 19th century background, as did Spielberg’s use of shadows and lighting at key moments. In one scene Lincoln appears almost angelic as the light shining through the bedroom curtains envelope him as he speaks to wife in the darkened room. Day-Lewis is at his best every time he dives into any of the several poignant monologues orated by Lincoln, whether it is in consolation of his distressed wife, urging his advisers on the exigency of abolishing slavery or the stressing the need to be gentle with the South during the period of reconstruction.
The one weakness I would like to point out, despite the sturdy script, is the pacing. Although the dialogue is excellent, there are times when it drags on too long. Coupled with some of the antiquated terms of 19th century American-English, it didn’t come as a shock to see an audience member or two briefly nod off in the theater.
Nevertheless, “Lincoln” delivers a sense of intimacy to a man that most Americans have only ever known as a folk-hero. Day-Lewis’s Oscar-worthy performance exposes Lincoln’s inner struggles and his fight to overcome political hurdles for a way of life that Americans today take for granted. “Lincoln” was a refreshing break in the wake of a very bitter election season, and it is certainly one of the best films of the year.