The Social Studies classes that we’ve have taken throughout our teenage lives have always brought the big moments in history in a concise and annotated manner. Who was the 16th President Abraham Lincoln? For some people, the answer was that he was the president who freed the slaves with the passing of thirteenth amendment during the height of the American Civil War. That’s pretty much the basis of what some students can gather from in their Social Studies lesson in the past, but director Steven Spielberg wants to live through the details in his latest look at the 16th president, Lincoln. But, rather than do a typical biography of the man’s life throughout the years, Spielberg focuses on the man when the fate of the United States was on his world shoulders, trying to end the Civil War while also putting an end to slavery.
There are some keen identifiers to what a Spielberg can bring to his cinematic audience, such as overtly saccharine moments that feel a bit eye rolling in regards to some of his previous films. But there is a ton of restraint in his look at Lincoln years during the Civil War. He’s more apt to give the hardships and difficulties that president Lincoln had to face when dealing with the 13th amendment. While Lincoln has the mythic appearance of being this tall, foreboding president that never stood down to his beliefs, Spielberg opts for a more human aspect to what made the president work. He’s more personable to his cabinet members and the people around him, always willing to tell a story to reinforce the point that he’s trying to tell the audience surrounding him. Apart from one or to brief scenes that show Lincoln when he’s making his speech to the public, the film feels more apt to making the film about “Lincoln: The Person”, while every now and then show “Lincoln: The President”.
This is, in part, due to Daniel Day Lewis’s magnificent performance as Lincoln. Never once do you see Lewis playing Abraham Lincoln, just the character on screen. He brings such a nuanced, warm, and overwhelmed performance as the president with, literally and figuratively, the world on his shoulders. He brings the character of Lincoln as mostly a man who hold back the difficulties and struggles that he’s currently faces, and instead tries to bring warmth and comfort to the people that begin to doubt him. But, it’s when Lewis brings forth Lincoln’s stand as a domineering and angry force that you know that, while Lincoln comes across as humble for the majority of the film, he still has moments of weakness that wears away his stoic, warm hearted façade.
But, while Lewis is rightfully excellent, the rest of the ensemble in Lincoln is more than up to the task to work right along side Lewis. The highlight being Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a radical whose mind set is always toward the complete abolishment of slavery. Jones’s Stevens could be considered the beating moral heart in Lincoln, as he portrays a man who will not relinquish or taint his personal views on slavery, not matter if what he says makes him a mockery to the House of Representatives. Jones lives for these crotchety roles that he seems so excellent at portraying, and this is one that he simply knocks out of the park.
The rest of the cast ensemble, from Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd to a hilarious James Spader as political operative W.N. Bilbo, are pretty much uniformly excellent with what they are given from Spielberg. Well-known actors are given minor roles that they completely chew into, even if certain moments don’t pack the emotional punch that Spielberg anticipated. There are some well-directed scenes in this film, with Spielberg never trying to make the film as epic as a film of this caliber should appear to be, always allowing the characters add to the weight of the nicely done set pieces of the film.
But, there comes a point, especially near the end of the film, where the ball kind of gets dropped in regards to the conclusion of the film. One moment has the perfect ending, but there seems to be this need to continue going with the film that pretty much lacks the emotional punch that Spielberg thinks would work. If anything, the film comes across as rushed with these scenes in the end, never feeling as cohesive as most of the film appeared to be.
But, other than that slight misstep, Lincoln is still an amazing character piece on a president that helped changed the political landscape regarding the moral need, however the consequences, of having all men created equal in the eyes of the government. This is certainly a movie that middle and high school teachers should happily play in front of their students in order to gave a more layered account that a more annotated social studies textbook would probably leave out.