Making a successful biopic about an accomplished individual is a tricky thing. Most biopics tend to be bloated, self indulgent affairs that span the life of a person from childhood to grave without much emphasis being placed on what made the subject of the film so great in the first place. They tend to be embarrassing Oscar fodder and nothing more. However, a few unquestionably great biopics have emerged over the past decades—Amadeus, Braveheart, Raging Bull, and Steven Spielberg’s own Schindler’s List to name a few—and almost without fail, those movies honed in on a relatively narrow time frame. Instead of adopting a broad unfocused approach to the subject, the filmmakers restricted themselves to giving a detailed, intimate examination of a person during a particular event. In adapting Abraham Lincoln’s life to film, Steven Spielberg chose to focus on the last months of the President’s life instead of indulging in a four hour epic vanity project. The result is probably the greatest biopic on Abraham Lincoln ever put to film.
Largely adapted from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Tony Kushner, Lincoln depicts the political intrigue leading up to the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the end of the Civil War. From the beginning of the film Daniel Day-Lewis plays the wizened, prematurely aged commander in chief familiar to anyone who has ever handled a five dollar bill. President Lincoln has been re-elected to a second term, the Confederacy is in its death throes, and the amendment that would abolish slavery is lingering in the legislative purgatory of the House of Representatives.
Here, Spielberg chooses not to focus on the Civil War, but the political conflict in the House of Representatives. With the South ready to capitulate and reenter the Union, Lincoln finds himself faced with a conundrum: He can readily accept the surrender of the Confederacy knowing that the newly readmitted South would block the 13th Amendment’s journey through the legislature or he can prolong the war just long enough to ram the Constitutional amendment through a Republican dominated Congress.
Of course, everyone wants an end to the bloody four year old conflict. Considerably fewer people actually want the slaves emancipated. True to his convictions, however, Lincoln views passing the amendment as a moral imperative; the frosting on the cake is that the destruction of slavery would ultimately lead to the collapse of the South’s economy, thus preventing the possibility of another Southern-led insurrection.
Faced with an extremely small window of opportunity, Lincoln begins this monumental undertaking by rallying his base in the conservative wing of the Republican Party (represented by Hal Holbrooke as Preston Blair) and enlisting the aid of Thaddeus Stevens (a perfectly cast Tommy Lee Jones) to wrangle the radical abolitionist wing of the organization. Needing twenty Democratic votes to pass the legislation, Lincoln employs the services of W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes), and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) to persuade several of the soon-to-be-unemployed Congressmen to the winning side. Those men possessed of better natures are persuaded through logical argument, and the corrupt are outright bribed into Lincoln’s services, illustrating that while the sixteenth President himself was incorruptible, the man was also keenly aware of how to play the Washington game.
Tony Kushner, who also penned the fantastic yet criminally overlooked Munich, turns in a screenplay that’s at once complex, insightful, and humorous. The film never goes so far as to completely sentimentalize Congress, showing the legislative body in all its unvarnished corruption. The dialogue driving the picture is eloquent and clever, which is fortunate since Lincoln is more akin to a stage play than a Civil War epic. And a fantastic cast that includes Michael Stuhlbarg, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Sally Field, and Jackie Earle Haley in addition to the previously aforementioned actors gives life to the material.
It almost goes without saying that Daniel Day-Lewis provides a fantastic performance in the role of Abe Lincoln. Through his performance he strives to demythologize the man, opting for a nasally, Walter-Brennan-esque whine and a stoop-shouldered, limping gait that sharply contrasts with most popular depictions of the man. Day-Lewis gives us a glimpse of the soft spoken, rural lawyer that lies beneath the legend.
And yet, Spielberg and Day-Lewis are quick to portray the man as a masterful actor and a shrewd negotiator. In several passages of Lincoln, he often disarms his opposition by telling homespun anecdotes and jokes. Only quirky Lincoln himself appears to find them funny, but in the telling of his parables he always manages to draw attention to himself and deprive his competitors of momentum. When soft spoken humor doesn’t work, he’s not above adapting by displaying cold logic or righteous anger as the situation requires. Day-Lewis manages to weave Abraham Lincoln’s varying moods into a seamless performance. As far as I’ve seen, this is as close as anyone’s ever come to playing President Lincoln as a flesh and blood human being as opposed to a deity.
While the movie is perhaps a little too long, a little too sentimental, and a little too verbose, I admire Spielberg for having the confidence to tackle such complex material. A young Steven Spielberg would have likely felt compelled to give us a rousing Civil War epic or a bloated four hour telling of Lincoln’s life from cradle to grave. But the Spielberg of today doesn’t give a damn; this was the story he wanted to tell, and he did a masterful job of telling it. Making war fascinating is easy; making political horse-trading fascinating is not. It’s a testament to Spielberg’s ability as a filmmaker that he has managed to take the story of the ratification of the 13th Amendment and transform it into one of the more compelling movies of 2012.