Written by: Tony Kushner
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg
Runtime: 150 minutes
America is in Civil War, but President Abraham Lincoln believes that the war will end soon. In accordance to that, he starts the aggressive effort to finally pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, the one which would finally put an end to slavery. What he is doing is not supported by the popular opinion due to differences in interests, principles, and priorities. Conflicts between the Republicans, Democrats, and the Confederate government initially become hindrances to the immediate passing of the amendment, but as President Lincoln remains immovable, his quest to pass the amendment continues amidst his own personal crisis with his unstable wife Mary.
After the film was released, many people have hailed this film as Spielberg’s finest motion picture since, I do not know, I guess Saving Private Ryan. And while I do not fully embrace the notion, I understand the logic behind those kind words because it is indeed a very finely crafted film that is unlike any other biopic that I can recall. There is a certain air of authenticity in the whole milieu that can only be pointed to the filmmaking process, and Steven Spielberg, being a very competent director himself, is the one mainly responsible for that.
Not a single second of the film do I doubt the legitimacy of the whole setting, and it is due to the strong showing of the directing prowess. He is definitely under control, and it is quite evident in the scenes where he skilfully lets the actors breathe the air in the scenes and move around the space and capturing those moments with an uncontainable love for technique and detail. In those small moments, he proves that he has already mastered the craft of turning reality to cinema and vice versa.
As far as we all know that a talky film like this relies on the actors to give life to these characters, it is Tony Kushner’s deft screenplay that provides a sharp backbone to the story. The way each scene is written, there is an obvious amount of focus that suffices in the proceedings, making each subplot cohesive with the others. Obviously, the screenplay gets the spotlight in this film, and it is no way near a bad idea. It is furnished by the display of appropriated knowledge. The jargon is not alienating nor is it too generic for it to sound awkward. The choice of words contributes to the over-all intricacy present in the film.
Ace cinematography tops the list of the technical merits of this film, pitting the dark with the light and the area in between to further add the necessary shading to the film to make the whole environment seem tangible. The editing provokes an ambience of unhurried but insightful tactility of the different dimensions of each movement in the story. The music shows emotional restraint that very well suits the tone of the narrative. The production design even impresses more with the amount of care in handling the details in the creation of the environment. It is a really solid work that reflects the utmost dedication to specificity by the filmmaker and the same goes with the costume design.
And we are left with the actors who had done exemplary work in their roles. Daniel Day-Lewis is admirable as the title character, giving all in creating this character and surprisingly doing it with full restraint and control. It is quite perceptible that he knows the psyche of the character and acts, moves, talks, and behaves in accordance to that. In the end, what we have here is a virtuoso work from a masterful actor.
In the other end of ht spectrum but still in sync with the film’s over-all tone is Sally Field as the disturbed and worried First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. She only has a few scenes to really flesh out her character, and she takes advantage of that to craft a fascinating and enigmatic character of a woman whose inability to take hold of what is around her is the same as her ability to actually show her love for her husband and her children; making Mary Todd a captivating character.
Aside from Field, almost all of the significant characters in the film are men, and they are all played by a group of actors that gave solid work: David Strathairn, Michael Stuhlbarg, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lee Pace, and particularly Tommy Lee Jones. Also not to be forgotten is Gloria Reuben as Mary Todd’s personal assistant/maid.
Bottom line is that the film is a very strong production from a distinguished filmmaker. We all know that Spielberg could pull this off, it is just the matter of how will he be able to do this. He mostly succeeds. My only hold back stems from the fact that I would have wanted an ample amount of sentimentality enough for me to care more for the characters. I know, many criticize Spielberg for being too much of a sentimental filmmaker (his 2011 film War Horse would be a perfect example), and his decision to tone it down a bit has earned him some really high admiration. But because of the source material, I would have wished for a tiny amount of sentimentality. Still, I cannot discount the over-all impact of the film.
For this, the film gets:
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