For the past few weeks Hollywood has been releasing a number of films that should figure prominently in the bid for that coveted Academy Award in the category of the year’s best picture. Although some of the potential contenders have yet to be released, one sure bet to be among the nominees is “Lincoln,” an incredibly powerful and moving film directed by Academy Award winner Stephen Spielberg. This remarkable movie has Oscar nominations written all over it, and it definitely belongs on everyone’s do-not-miss-this-one list.
Partly based upon “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the movie is not by any means a complete chronicle of Lincoln’s life. Instead it deals primarily with the events in January 1865, when, as the Civil War raged toward its conclusion several months later, Lincoln desperately wanted to push the 13th Amendment, which would abolish slavery, through the House of Representatives.
Of course there really is no mystery surrounding the plot of the film because we know the Civil War ended and that the 13th Amendment passed. (I hope I didn’t give too much away there.) But it is a great testament to the filmmakers and actors that even though we know what will happen, the film still manages to establish and sustain sufficient suspense as the members of the House of Representatives debate passage of the amendment.
Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed slaves in 10 Confederate states, but it didn’t offer freedom to slaves in other states, and it did not make the practice of owning slaves illegal. Lincoln was concerned that the Emancipation Proclamation wouldn’t hold up after the Civil War, and this made the passage of the 13th Amendment vital. For your elucidation and edification, here is the text of the amendment.
“Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or anyplace subject to their jurisdiction.”
“Section 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Sufficient superlatives to describe Lewis’s performance in this film simply do not exist. The only way to explain it is by saying that he doesn’t portray Lincoln. He is Lincoln. His physical appearance, thanks to some remarkable makeup artists, is truly amazing. He looks as if he just got up out of that chair in the Lincoln Memorial and stepped onto the set to make a movie. His voice inflection and facial expressions are flawless, and throughout the film he manages to convey the incredible strain Lincoln is under merely by his body language.
Day-Lewis already has two best-actor Oscars on his mantle for “My Left Foot” in 1989 and “There Will Be Blood” in 2007, but he probably would be pretty safe in moving them over to make room for a third one. Of course I haven’t seen the performances of all possible contenders yet, but I honestly cannot imagine a more electric portrayal of a character than Day-Lewis delivers in this movie. Lincoln was known for loving to tell stories, and some of the best scenes in the film focus on this aspect of the man. In the film’s production notes, Day-Lewis offered some interesting insight into his character.
“There was somebody very dear to me who’s no longer alive but who had a similar storyteller quality, and I don’t know if you’re storytellers, but I’m not really a storyteller myself. That was something that kind of worried me a good deal, finding those qualities. There was an immediate sharpness to Lincoln’s wit that was so beautiful. It was something I loved about him.
“He did everything at his own pace and could only do it at his own pace. He needed to arrive at his decisive conclusions by a logical process that he relied on. What looked to others like inaction or paralysis was just the physical impression that he gave. In his own mind he was traveling as he needed to do, through each step of the process, after which he could see things clearly.”
Although this film is unquestionably a showcase for the awesome talent of Day-Lewis, you will not find a weak link in the enormous cast, and although space prohibits mentioning all of the supporting players, the following deserve mention for their stellar performances: Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William H. Seward, Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, Hal Holbrook as Franklin Preston Blair, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, and James Spader as William N. Bilbo.
Under the meticulous direction of the incomparable Spielberg, “Lincoln” undoubtedly and deservedly will be recognized as one of the year’s best films. In the production notes Spielberg explained what he drove him to make the film the way he did and how it differs from many of his other movies.
“Lincoln guided our country through its worst moments and allowed the ideals of American democracy to survive and assured the end of slavery. But I also wanted to make a film that would show how multifaceted Lincoln was. He was a statesman, a military leader, but also a father, a husband, and a man who was always continuously looking deep inside himself. I wanted to tell a story about Lincoln that would avoid the mistakes of both cynicism and hero worship and be true to the vastness of who he was in the intimacy of his life and the softer angles of his nature.”
“We came to focus on the last four months of Lincoln’s life because what he accomplished in that time was truly monumental. However, we wanted to show that he himself was a man, not a monument. We felt our best hope of doing justice to this immensely complicated person was to depict him in the midst of his most complex fight: to pass the 13th Amendment on the floor of the House of Representatives.
“My movies more often are told through pictures, not words. But in this case, the pictures took second position to the incredible words of Abraham Lincoln and his presence. With Lincoln I was less interested in an outpouring of imagery than in letting the most human moments of the story evolve before us.”
The movie captures the era of 1865, including the horror of the Civil War, beautifully with spectacular sets, superb costumes, magnificent cinematography, and realistic props. It also boasts a stunning musical score by five-time Academy Award winner John Williams (Who else?), who should pick up his 48th nomination for this film.
In a letter written in 1864, Lincoln said, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” I’d like to paraphrase that by saying that if “Lincoln” (Yes, it gets the big 10.) is not masterpiece, nothing is a masterpiece.