When I was a somewhat nerdy little kid I had a book about U.S. presidents that absolutely fascinated me.
What was it about these men that allowed them to rise from varying degrees of anonymity to become the leader of one of the great nations of the world?
To me, the most enigmatic president has always been Abraham Lincoln. All the big stuff, like ending slavery, winning the Civil War, and getting his face carved into a mountain make him history’s equivalent of a superhero.
But his legend always seemed to only further obscure Lincoln the human being.
It’s impossible to truly know who Lincoln was, but Steven Spielberg’s new film “Lincoln” peels back the mythos just enough to give us glimpses of our 16th President as a living, breathing man and the result of this loving portrait is one of the best movies of the year.
What is probably most impressive about this movie is that it was 95 percent of a masterpiece before Spielberg even turned on a camera.
The most important thing Spielberg did was cast the world’s greatest living actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, as Lincoln. This notoriously immersive actor wears the great statesman like a suit. From his appearance to his gait to his historically accurate higher-pitched voice, Day-Lewis absolutely nails the physicality of the role.
But it is his embodiment of Lincoln’s conviction, sense of humor, melancholy, and charm that makes Day-Lewis the favorite to snag his third Best Actor Oscar.
Spielberg’s other pre-production coup was getting award-winning playwright Tony Kushner to write the screenplay adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling Lincoln biography, “Team of Rivals.”
Kushner focuses on a small slice of Lincoln’s presidency towards the end of the war as the president worked to get the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, ratified.
As history sometimes allows us to forget, some things were not necessarily foregone conclusions and Lincoln had to use every bit of his political cunning, including buying the votes of Democrats with political appointments, to get the amendment passed.
While some people might find 1800s legislative sausage-making to be drier than a C-SPAN marathon, for me it only grounds Lincoln firmer in reality.
Spielberg shows us a political discourse that was every bit as toxic as cable news gives us today, only then the stakes were exponentially higher.
Lastly, Spielberg emptied the bench of talented character actors to fill out the massive cast. Of course, when you send out the email “Stephen Spielberg to direct Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln” to Hollywood’s talent agencies, the movie pretty much will cast itself.
Some notables include Sally Field (in one of her best performances in years) as Mary Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist representative Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s son, Robert, Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant and John Hawkes (who also happens to be Day-Lewis’ chief best actor competition for his work in “The Sessions”) as political ne’er-do-well Robert Latham.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, it’s almost disappointing when an actor pops up in “Lincoln” that you don’t recognize.
Is this a movie dripping with historical accuracy? Most likely not, but that’s not the point. I remember visiting the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and being quietly gobsmacked by seeing Lincoln’s signature stovepipe hat on display.
It took me back to when I was a kid reading that book and trying to reconcile Lincoln the man with the Lincoln on the page. That hat was something simple and tangible that did just that.
“Lincoln” is the cinematic equivalent of that stovepipe hat. It is in no way, shape, or form the real Abraham Lincoln, but it does give us something concrete we can connect with. If that’s not great art, I don’t know what is.
“Lincoln” is rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage, and brief strong language.