Lincoln is why Hollywood should exist. Steven Spielberg’s wonderful film about our 16th president isn’t a war epic or a maudlin biography. The film only follows Abraham Lincoln for a few months; the earlier details of his political and personal life largely have to be intuited through his dialogue. And yet, Lincoln seems wholly complete, an emotionally satisfying retelling of an incredibly monumental part of American history. I struggle to think of another director who could have pulled it off with Spielberg’s wit, confidence and utter mastery as a storyteller.
Lincoln opens, naturally, with Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), shortly after his 1864 re-election in the throes of the Civil War. The hundreds of thousands who have died fighting weigh heavily on this president’s slender build—Day-Lewis hunches his body, his craggy face a mirror for the carnage that Spielberg rarely chooses to show on screen. He’s strong, but sagging. He’s burdened, but resolute. Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is a thoughtful man, prone to the kind of teachable stories that seem ripped from The West Wing. It’s a reverent performance, but when you’re playing a man who prevented an entire country from tearing itself apart, I’d say that reverence is well deserved.
Daniel Day Lewis as ”Lincoln”
With political winds at his back, Lincoln delivers a message to his cabinet: his famous Emancipation Proclamation is not enough. He wants to pass a constitutional amendment — the 13th Amendment — to outlaw slavery in the United States. Lincoln concerns itself with the congressional battle that unravels during that quest to abolish slavery. Thankfully, Spielberg challenges his audience to work through the political intricacies of that story as he tells it. (The differences, for example, between anti-slavery advocates and abolitionists are integral to Lincoln, but Spielberg never outright explains it. Instead, he shows it.) He’s practicing a historical minimalism of sorts, giving us the bare minimum of exposition we need to understand what’s happening, while the more subtle aspects of his filmmaking lead us to draw the right conclusions.