Two soldiers approach President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis). So begins a rousing portrait of our beloved 16th President who resided over the Civil War, freed the slaves from their Southern masters, then pushed for an Amendment to the Constitution so that no man living in this country would ever be forced to serve another in the form of slavery. It’s a film about compromise and logic, morality and ethics. It pits law against time in a struggle within the shoulders of one man, clothed in immense presidential power but restrained by his own moral convictions and the same laws that give him so much responsibility to bear. It’s a movie felt in the bones because it reaches deep under the skin with its messages of grace, compassion, and justice. This is no ordinary movie.
Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln shines its light on the last six months of the President’s life. Recently reelected and hoping to see an end to the brutal conflict that has engaged the northern and southern states in a bloody civil war, Lincoln’s hands are full managing his household as well as the affairs of the country. Foremost on his mind is the passing of the 13th Amendment which is 20 votes shy of being passed through the House of Representatives. Desperate to see it become law, and before a Southern envoy reaches the capitol for peace negotiations, Lincoln proposes a plan to give jobs to outgoing Democrats who have lost their seats in the House in exchange for their votes.
In politics and in life, things are not so cut and dry. Even within the Republican party, factions trade votes for concessions, and Lincoln toes a fine line trying not to tip the balance too far to one side if he wants to keep everyone happy. House Democrats, learning of Lincoln’s plans, manage to return at least one valuable vote back to their cause. At home, he has a house to keep in order — his eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wishes to join the war to the dismay of Molly Lincoln (Sally Field) who had already lost two sons to illnesses. It’s a complicated movie with plots, subplots, themes, and subtext. Yet, it’s still so simple in its execution. With powerhouses like Day-Lewis, Field, and Tommy Lee Jones as the strong-spoken Congressman Thaddeus Stevens delivering pointed lines that feel weighted and measured, there is a quality here that makes this one an instant classic. From scene to scene, the ensemble cast delivers striking and nuanced performances, and the direction by Steven Spielberg is inspired work. Lincoln is like a symphony with movements that begins with a note that grows ever louder until it’s quieted by the sound of a nation coming off its heels from war with a cry of freedom.