Lincoln works as well as it does because the Abraham Lincoln biopic chooses to focus on the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Steven Spielberg is one of America’s greatest directors. As such it makes perfect sense for Spielberg to direct a biopic of one of the nation’s greatest presidents. While Tony Kushner’s script could very well focus on Lincoln’s entire life, it would just be too much for one film. Instead, we get a focus on the end of the Civil War and the 13th Amendment. As such, the film manages to avoid most of the biopic pitfalls.
Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is commanding the nation during one of our most trying times. The Union is at battle against the Confederacy. His biggest worry is that the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation might not be strong enough. He proposes the 13th Amendment in hopes of ensuring that slavery is over once and for all. With the Union fighting the Confederacy, there’s a worry that they might not let this amendment pass should they return. This is where Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) plays a key role. He is a founder of the Republican Party and with two sons fighting for the Union Army, he is as much invested in this as Lincoln.
It’s very well possible that the amendment wouldn’t pass without the leadership of Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) of Pennsylvania. The Congressman delivers one heck of a rousing speech on the floor, concluding with “I do not hold with equality in all things, only with equality before the law!” There’s some controversy here as to just how much of a role Stevens actually played. But for the sake of argument, I’m evaluating the film for what we see on screen. As with any historical biopic, Tony Kushner takes some dramatic licenses with the screenplay. The film presents a relationship between Stevens and his biracial housekeeper, Lydia Hamilton Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson). It’s as if she serves as an underlying reason for why he takes the view that he does on equality.
While it’s ironic that it takes British actor Daniel Day-Lewis to play one of America’s greatest presidents, it’s a total domination. The method work that the actor puts into this role is no exception. It takes one of the greatest actors of our time to portray one of the greatest presidents in American history. It’s this method work that brings somewhat of an authentic feeling to the role. I don’t say this lightly but in all sense of the word, Daniel Day-Lewis IS President Abraham Lincoln!
Everyone else in the cast brings their own thing to this film. Whether it’s Sally Field as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln or Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, they all have their own parts to play. This is a star-studded cast and the craft in their work really shines through. Next to Day-Lewis, Jones delivers the most commanding performance opposite the president. Field is a very close second.
I do want to talk about Rick Carter’s production design work. It is so intricate much in the same way as Joanna Johnston’s costume design. Their work helps to recreate the 1860s. I give some credit here to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and her book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. When we talk about the work put in by the craft teams, this is what we mean. It’s not just the actors, director and screenwriter. Everyone has to do their job for a film to be what it is!
I love so many of John Williams’ scores. But there’s something here about his score for Lincoln that feels patriotic. Much of this is because Williams has a way of lifting up the moments at the right time. One key of those key moments is when Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens gives a rousing speech. Generally speaking, “The People’s House” is a masterfully scored piece of music and serves as the film’s theme so to speak. Make no mistake, Williams is one of the masters of our time. This film would not work without him.
Lincoln is a perfect example of why biopics should stress a focus on a narrow time period. This is one of the reasons why Spielberg’s Lincoln works. There’s no focus on his past because there’s just too much to pack in for this sort of film.
DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg
SCREENWRITER: Tony Kushner
CAST: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, and Tommy Lee Jones