Eschewing, correctly in my opinion, the approach of previous directors of attempting to tell the story of Lincoln’s life’s work in favour of a focus on a brief few months toward the end of the gruelling civil war, Spielberg’s film attempts to document the passage of the 13th Amendment which abolished once and for all the abomination that was and is human slavery. We meet Lincoln on the margins of a rainy battlefield as he talks jovially with a pair of young black soldiers fighting for the Union side in that most bitter conflict. From this one scene it becomes apparent what an incredible performance Daniel Day Lewis has once again drawn forth from within himself. He inhabits the role completely down to the gait of the President. From this conversation with pair of soldiers, Lincoln resolves to pass the amendment in the democrat controlled house of representatives no matter the cost to his personal prestige or relationship with his fellow republicans.
Despite the protests of his Secretary of State, an excellent David Strathairn and his much put upon wife, a fine Sally Field, he pushes on seeking to grasp by any means necessary the votes he requires. To accomplish this, he must do two things. Firstly he has to secure the votes of his own party led by an aged Hal Holbrook who demands that a negotiated peace be sought with the confederacy. This will lead inevitably to the defeat of the bill so it must be held off. Secondly, he must procure through the use of state favours, 20 democratic votes. To this end he hires a firm of lobbyists led by Mr W.N. Bilbo, a fantastically entertaining performance from James Spader to procure the necessary votes. Yet even at this point, the passage of the bill is not assured with Lincoln having to involve the noted radical and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, again another superb performance from Tommy Lee Jones. Were these political troubles not enough, he also suffers with a wife who grieves for her lost son and another son, Robert, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt who yearns to play his part on the battlefield. That he manages to walk this difficult personal and political path while also fighting a war along with his most trusted General, Ulysses Grant, played by the always watch-able Jared Harris, is a tale in and of itself.
There is not a single weak performance in what is an excellently assembled cast. I realize reading the above that I have yet to even praise actors of the calibre of John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley or Tim Blake Nelson.
The real achievement of both Spielberg and Day Lewis is that on one hand they shake the dust off the mythic status of Lincoln and humanise him so that he may be viewed as an ordinary man with flaws and difficulties while on the other they manage to put his achievements in a proper light and eulogise them for how ground-breaking they truly were. This is proper old school Hollywood film-making on a grand scale and deserves to rewarded as such. It will be a surprise if it fails to win most of the main acting awards as the forthcoming Academy Awards and yet this is a fine year for cinema with a number of equally excellent rivals.