Don’t let the title fool you. Lincoln is less a sweeping, life-spanning biopic of our country’s 16th president and more a glimpse at an important portion of the man’s life – specifically, the last four months of his life, which saw the passage of the 13th Amendment, the end of the Civil War, and of course, his assassination.
The bulk of the film covers the first two items. After four years of war, both the Union and Confederacy are open to the idea of negotiating peace. The main issue concerns what peace will entail. For Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), the passage of the slavery-ending 13th Amendment is so vital that it must be passed before he ends the war. Within the House of Representatives, Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) and the Republicans fight to pass the amendment, against fierce opposition by the Democrats. Against this landscape, the film also digs into Lincoln’s personal life, particularly his marriage to Mary Todd (Sally Field).
Lincoln is an interesting project from director Steven Spielberg. Outside of a few war scenes, the film largely stays indoors, with Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner focusing far more on the impassioned arguments for and against abolition, as well as the political deal-making that feels remarkably accurate to today’s political scene. Composer John Williams’ score rarely gets a chance to rise above the dialogue. If anything, Kushner’s remarkable script gets the most prominence in the film.
Fortunately for Kushner, his script is brought to life by a top-notch cast. Day-Lewis is already considered the frontrunner for the Best Actor Oscar, and for good reason. His Lincoln is a largely calming presence, but when Lincoln unleashes a righteous fury, Day-Lewis brings the necessary fire in a way few actors could accomplish. He’s matched in his scenes with Field and Jones, both of whom are also likely Oscar nominees for their roles. Field balances Lincoln’s calm with an impassioned, fiery performance, while Jones delivers a performance that’s remarkably restrained – most of the time, at least.
The film isn’t without problems. Most notably, Spielberg and Kushner start to run out of steam at the end, where the post-Amendment portion of the story is essentially skimmed over to reach the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s subsequent assassination. They’re important aspects, and it makes sense that the film would touch on the subjects, but they’re almost afterthoughts as the film approaches the end of its two-and-a-half hour runtime. Still, with Lincoln, Spielberg has crafted an interesting, powerful look at one of the most prominent figures of American history.