It is not least among the splendid accomplishments of Lincoln that we are not only shown a significant milestone in the long, tragic history of American racism, but that director Steven Spielberg wisely opens the film with a ghastly, phantasmagorical montage of a Civil War battlefield.
The combat portrayed will evoke in viewers memories of the director’s Saving Private Ryan. It’s strange but true that we seem to know less about this incredibly bloody war on our own soil than all foreign wars put together.Why is this? Lincoln himself said “We cannot escape history” but somehow, as Americans, the carnage that divided our nation has been eclipsed by the no-less brutal and savage wars that we’ve all studied from grade school on.
In focusing his film almost entirely on the passing of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, screenwriter Tony Kushner has managed to sharpen and redefine our understanding and appreciation of perhaps the most iconic of all American presidents. Images of the lanky, stooped Abe Lincoln are burned into our collective memories from the memorial in Washington, D.C., Mt. Rushmore and copper pennies, but we are given here a man for all ages and all seasons. Nothing seems more apt or pertinent to this time in world history than Spielberg’s masterful portrayal of our 16th president near the end of his term in office and sadly, his life.
What to say about Daniel Day-Lewis at this point? The actor transcends genre, type-casting, pigeon-holing in every role he undertakes. His Lincoln is at once complex and simple. He is not “playing” Lincoln, he has become Lincoln. All the signature moves, poses, facial expressions, the voice, the gait, all seem exactly right and yet never descend into the caricature of the man his performance could so easily have become.
As he did in the film of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Day-Lewis paces his performance with an incredible control over the emotional range of his character. From the initial kindly, always ready with a joke, paternal figure to a man capable of outbursts of passionate rage, he is never less than jaw-dropping pitch perfect. A scene with Sally Field (Oscar-worth as Mary Todd Lincoln) reaches an almost unbearable level of parental grief that few actors are capable of delivering.
Everyone in the large cast here delivers inspired turns. Wonderful to see a veterans like Hal Halbrook and David Strathairn more than rise to the occasion. Then there is the Thaddeus Stevens of Tommy Lee Jones, leader of the abolitionist movement, comically absurd in a slapped-upon wig that could double as a dust mop. His passionate devotion to passing the amendment based on the law, rather than personal passions, becomes increasingly eloquent and moving as the day of reckoning (the House vote) approaches. We know the outcome in advance and yet are still kept on the edge of our seats as if watching an unfolding thriller.
Much credit for the visual beauty of the film goes, of course, to director of photography Janusz Kaminski, who frames each scene as if they are paintings in a gallery, using a palette of colors seemingly so real that one imagines, “yes, this is how it really looked at the time.”
Still, at the end of the day it is Lewis whose Lincoln will remain indelibly etched in our minds. When, exhausted and weary, after his personal and public wars, he utters, “Shall we stop this bleeding?," there are few of us who cannot sigh, reflect on the present world chaos and utter a resounding “AMEN”!
Jeff Klayman is an award-winning playwright whose works have been produced in New York, Los Angeles and London. He also wrote the screenplay for the independent film Adios, Ernesto, directed by Mervyn Willis.