Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Daniel Day Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Few minutes into the film, the camera pans around and settles on Daniel Day Lewis sitting on a high bench, lit from behind. Before him stand four soldiers, two black, two white. The first two tell him about discrimination, the latter two about the day they heard equality get its due, in the Gettysburg Address.
It’s a masterful scene, managing to tell you in a brief moment where Abraham Lincoln comes from, where he wants to be and where he has come to be — Lewis on that bench unmistakably reminiscent of Lincoln in his famous Washington memorial.
Having established the presidential, the rest of Spielberg’s film is about Lincoln being a president — which, crucially, has as much to do with leadership as with the ability to do politics. This is a rare movie that almost entirely takes place in dark, cigar-smoke filled rooms and cares for what goes on within as well as what emerges from it.
At a time when politics is seen as a tool to stall, hinder, obstruct or further own causes, Lincoln tells you that politics can rise above and why it often can’t. At the same time, this isn’t a rose-tinted view, with the film being quite frank that means, to a point, don’t matter if the end is right.
The film is based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Goodwin is lucky that Pulitzer Prize-winning screenwriter Tony Kushner gets that. Working with just four crucial months leading into Lincoln’s second term, when he pushed through an amendment abolishing slavery, Kushner manages to still tell the life story of the 16th President in gripping dialogue and in his interactions with wife, sons, aides and rivals, his anecdotes, public speeches, private conversations and his very private grief.
In Lewis’s hands, this Lincoln is mourning the loss of his second son, battling his wife’s growing trauma, debating choosing between settling for peace and pushing through the amendment, and tiring of the fight palpably before our eyes.