By John H. Foote
One of the great recent American films, and one of Steven Spielberg’s finest achievements, Lincoln leaves you with the belief you have spent time with the sixteenth President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. As portrayed by the three-time Academy Award winning Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who spent a full year researching the character, Lincoln is a folksy, laser intelligent man, who understands exactly what he must do to abolish slavery.
Day-Lewis had won Academy Awards for Best Actor in My Left Foot (1989) and There Will Be Blood (2007) with further nominations for In the Name of the Father (1993) and Gangs of New York (2002) and he should have been nominated as John Proctor in The Crucible (1996).
Over the course of this literate, intensely fascinating film, we watch Lincoln wheel and deal to get the votes to pass his bill to abolish slavery before Lee surrenders ending the Civil War. The wise President knows if he does not get the bill passed before the war ends, it will never happen, and the country could be ripped apart once again. Lincoln is equally aware that the passage of the amendment to the Constitution could inflame the South and prevent the end of this bloody, ugly war.
Based on the superb Doris Kearns Goodwin book “Team of Rivals”, screenwriter and playwright Tony Kushner, who wrote the searing play Angels in America (2004) and the intense film Munich (2005), agonized on adapting the book to film. At one point, given the length of the script, was believed Lincoln would be created as a mini-series for HBO. However, after endless meetings with Spielberg, the decision was made to focus on the last four years of Lincoln’s life, his fight to abolish owning other human beings, the end of the war, his constant worry about his wife and his own battle with the deep melancholy that hovered over him like a great storm cloud. Finally, with a script that was considered one of the most beautiful, literate screenplays of the last 40 years, they were set to shoot. But then another crippling blow. Liam Neeson had long been cast as Lincoln with two-time Academy Award winning Best Actress Sally Field as his wife Mary Todd, but now Neeson considered himself too old to make the film.
Spielberg promptly sent the script to twice crowned (at the time) Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who agreed to take a meeting with the director. The screenplay and working with Spielberg scared him, but creating Lincoln fascinated him and he signed on provided he have a year to research Lincoln and find his voice. Though Spielberg was ready to go, he granted Day-Lewis his wishes, and he went off to direct War Horse (2011), based on the excellent play, the film earning a Best Picture nomination.
Lincoln premiered at the New York Film Festival and left audiences and critics awestruck.
At the centre of the film was Day-Lewis, simply astonishing as Lincoln, leaving audiences with the sense that for the first time, they had truly encountered the greatest President in the history of the United States, alive, true, a flesh and blood creation on the screen in front of them. The actor, known for his meticulous research, and complete immersion into the role, was no different here, becoming Lincoln, both body and soul. Between takes on the set, the cast and crew referred to him as Mr. President, while Spielberg stated he met Day-Lewis in Ireland, the next time he saw him, Daniel was gone, he had become Lincoln.
The film is set in 1865, covering the last four months of his life, as he wheeled and dealed to abolish the plague he felt was slavery in the South, and attempted to heal the nation of the savage war that took with it the very soul of America. The film’s greatness is in exploring Lincoln as the flesh and blood commander in chief he was. Yes, he was a brilliant lawyer, a gifted storyteller, and President of the United States. But he was also a husband and father, as well as a friend to many. He worried constantly about his mentally ill wife Mary Todd (Sally Field), plagued with manic depression her entire life. They both mourned deeply the loss of two sons, each fearful of losing another, each aware of the staggering pain of losing a child. With the weight of the nation squarely on his sloping shoulders, the melancholy he carried through his life, the personal tragedies he held close, Lincoln was a deeply wounded man, yet he understood what was expected of him.
In the opening scene we first see Lincoln with his back to us, talking to two young black soldiers, both who hold him in great esteem. They speak of their struggle, one candidly as the camera moves around to show us Lincoln, sitting, happy to speak to the young men prepared to give their life for the Northern cause. Two white soldiers join the group and begin reciting the Gettysburg Address, perhaps his most famous speech and as the men leave to go fight, the black soldiers continue the recitation, glancing back at the great man, just once.
We the audience, like those brave young men, have just been introduced to President Abraham Lincoln, heard him speak in that high voice he was said to have had, and basked in his warm, gentle goodness. Did such a man as he truly was hold the office that Trump has turned to ruin? It was not lost on me that watching the two black soldiers discuss equality that Barack Obama had just been re-elected to a second term.
Though Day-Lewis and Sally Field dominate the film with brilliant award-winning work, the rest of this magnificent ensemble cast do equally fine work. Tommy Lee Jones is a standout as the cynical, slave loathing Thaddeus Stevens, Joseph Gordon-Levitt superb as Robert Lincoln, Hal Holbrook outstanding as Preston Blair, Michael Stuhlberg excellent as George Yeaman, David Strathairn quietly brilliant as Secretary of State William Seward and Jackie Earl Haley perfect as the Confederate state Vice President Alexander Stevens. Effective in smaller roles are character actors Adam Driver, John Hawkes, Walton Goggins, James Spader, Bruce McGill, and Gloria Reuben.
The art direction and production design superbly bring to life the period, a White House not yet the opulent landmark it is today, Ford’s Theatre, and incredibly the smoky, body cluttered fields where brother fought against brother, Americans fighting Americans, their blood mingling with the earth they fought for.
Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, Lincoln was the front runner before the awards but there seemed to be a backlash against Steven Spielberg leading up to the awards. The New York Film Critics honoured Day-Lewis with his third Best Actor award, and Sally Field was named Best Supporting Actress. Tony Kushner was the winner of the Best Screenplay award. Day-Lewis won most of the Best Actor awards leading into Oscar night, where despite the anti-Spielberg feelings, Lincoln was still the front runner.
In all the years finest achievement won just two awards a third record setting Best Actor award for Day-Lewis for his towering performance as Lincoln and the films production design won an Oscar. Looking back at Argo (2012) as the years best film, according to the Academy, eight years later feels like a terrible injustice. And Spielberg losing to Ang Lee guiding Life of Pi (2012) seems as foolish now as it did then. In some quarters the backlash against Spielberg led to some (dim wits) calling the film “boring” which was simply untrue.
Listen! Listen! Listen! It as though we were hurtled into the past and were somehow watching history transpire. All around are men in heavy wool suits and thick heavy beards, speaking the eloquent words of Kushner as Spielberg paints history, as Griffith did, with lightning.
You may not experience a more literate screenplay in your life so perfectly brought to life by this gifted filmmaker and his cast and artists.
An American masterpiece of the highest calibre.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.