Seven score and seven years ago, Abraham Lincoln was elected to his second term as President of the United States, amidst a nation in chaos. Just about everyone wanted an end to the Civil War, but the fighting raged on. Lincoln, and most northerners with him, believed that a permanent constitutional amendment that officially ended slavery would take the wind out of the southern sails. But even in the 1860s, partisan politics often got in the way of progress.
Lincoln tells the story of the President’s effort to ensure that the amendment, which had already been passed by the Senate, would get the needed two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives. And while the premise may sound as interesting to some as watching C-SPAN (and in fact, a couple of scenes in which people sitting in the gallery watching the debates feel very much like a precursor to modern political commentary), the depiction of it is utterly fascinating. The film is often funny, sometimes graphic, and provides exactly the right balance between ensuring that the audience has the information needed to understand what’s going on without feeling like it’s lecturing or talking down to us.
Daniel Day-Lewis has all but guaranteed himself a best actor nomination for his portrayal of the President, who is smarter than everyone around him but always equipped with an arsenal of anecdotes to make just the right point without being preachy or condescending. The film should also be lauded for its impeccable makeup and costuming, which perfectly complement Day-Lewis’s acting to make it nearly impossible to believe that he’s underneath it all. And while those surrounding the President aren’t nearly as familiar to the general public, the seemingly endless list of actors portraying them are almost just as brilliant in their roles. Tommy Lee Jones should be particularly singled out for his part as Thaddeus Stevens (one of the key House Republicans), and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the performance earn him a supporting actor nomination.
If Sally Field doesn’t get similar acknowledgment for her Mary Todd Lincoln, it’s probably because she isn’t central to the plot of passing the amendment, and because she’s mostly a downer. Certainly the film needs to have a first lady, and Sally Field does a better job than most could have, but her constant negativity and focus on peripheral details can make the film feel longer than it needs to be, especially on a second viewing. If her scenes had been trimmed, or if she had occasionally been in a less foul mood, then the two and a half hours would have been even more effortless than they already are.
Another element contributing to the film’s length is its insistence on continuing beyond the logical ending. It’s only two scenes and only a couple of minutes, but they cover something that is neither directly related to the passage of the amendment, nor necessary to give the audience a sense of closure. Everyone already knows how the story ultimately ends for the sixteenth president, but explicitly spelling it out darkens what should have been a celebration.
Minor complaints aside, Lincoln is one of the best films of the year and is sure to be recognized as such when award season rolls around. It’s a genuinely intriguing film about what certainly could have been a very boring subject, and it manages to maintain tension even when you already know how it’s going to end. Even if you don’t like war, politics, or period pieces, this is one that you should make sure to check out.