THE WORDS that make up the script that tell the story of the 16th president’s efforts to get the 13th Amendment through the House evolve into a densely rich historical drama. The process at the heart of how history happened and the path provided to make it possible are subsequently spun into a riveting story brimming with pain and humor. Through the congressional process and the people tapped to mark the seminal moment in our American history, Stephen Spielberg and Tony Kushner have delivered our era’s “Gone with the Wind,” made possible through the fearless portrayal of the man at its heart.
Daniel Day Lewis is LINCOLN, all caps required. Haunted, vulnerable, determination of molten steel to be the foundation of something all involved know will be great, Abraham lives on screen with humor, agony and humanity as a leader that eventually molds men’s obstinance to his will and purpose for the betterment of a country that cannot be all it’s intended without completion of the task at hand. Not even Civil War peace matters more. A performance that has come to be expected of Lewis, which goes beyond all methods and madness that make an artist grab from within to go where his courage leads, ignoring the fence of myth that dares him to try.
The film is based in part on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which provides the map.
The details have already been written and is useful for those who haven’t read the book or know the plot and characters.
There is Secretary of State William Seward played by David Strathairn, Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Stevens by Tommy Lee Jones, party founder Preston Blair by Hal Holbrook, a tormented to the bone Mary Todd Lincoln by Sally Field, with Republican dealmakers led by James Spader.
There is Lincoln asking two young men if they think we choose to be born.
At one point, the eldest son Robert, portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, explodes at his father, telling Lincoln “I may not be my father, but I won’t be nothing,” laying down the gauntlet on his decision to defy his parents and join the fight. The news brings on another fit of emotion by Field when she learns of it, telling her husband to make good on his prior threats to commit her, and threatening of what’s to come if Robert dies and her pain in losing another son cannot be held in check. Lincoln responds in an emotional venting that confronts his wife that she can choose to react as she must, but not to think his grief is less because he expresses it as he will, leaving his wife to stew in the drama from which she cannot extricate herself, but which he won’t join, as he leaves the room and in it her alone. It’s a thunderclap moment between husband and wife, where Spielberg and Kushner have Lincoln leaving Mary sitting on the floor writhing in pain, a catharsis of epic drama in which Lincoln refuses to indulge. The grief for him is too much to unleash, but which for his wife it seems all she has left in life.
Then there’s that one instant in the film when Lincoln talks about equality, where Daniel Day Lewis’s performance reached into my heart and history became now, the intimacy unnerving at how it shook me.
Then there are those moments Lincoln makes you laugh out loud.
Lincoln’s death that isn’t seen, because the moment can’t be captured beyond clichÃ©.
But it always comes back to the words, the unfolding, returning back to them, with the experience of feeling it making it manifest.
Seeing Lincoln come alive on screen before you is a gift. That it transports you to a point in U.S. history and makes it breathe is an event.
All of it lent to the moment, lifted from parts of history’s archives.