Nominated for 12 Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best actor, Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" is one of the most stirring political dramas ever made. The director explored similar material in his slave-rebellion epic "Amistad". The difference here is that he's working with a brilliant script by Tony Kushner. Adapting "Team of Rivals", Doris Kearns Goodwin's biography of America's 16th president, Kushner has tightly focused the action around January 1865, a fascinating time in Lincoln's political career as well as his personal life.
In scenes that are true to the period but feel remarkably modern, we see the political horse-trading that was involved as Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) pressed the House of Representatives to abolish slavery by passing the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The Civil War (glimpsed briefly in a bloody battlefield scene at the beginning but mostly serving as a backdrop) is drawing to a close, and Lincoln's eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is anxious to join the fight before it's finished. Understandably, this creates a lot of tension between the president and his wife, Mary (Sally Field), who's terrified by the thought of Robert entering a war that would ultimately take the lives of 800,000 men in a country of 30 million.
This is a folksier Lincoln than we're used to seeing and hearing about – also funnier and more accessible, even when he's quoting an Ancient Greek mathematician to make a point about equality between the races. Day-Lewis already looks a lot like Lincoln, and so he has the benefit of working without a lot of prosthetic enhancement. This allows him to connect more directly with the audience. This is an actor we've come to expect great things from, but recently his screen persona has become rather fearsome, playing gangsters and cutthroat capitalists in films like "Gangs of New York" and "There Will Be Blood". His humanity shines through as Lincoln. This is a towering acting achievement.
Still, "Lincoln" isn't a one-man show. Day-Lewis is surrounded by A-list actors working at the top of their game. Best Supporting Actor nominee Tommy Lee Jones burns up the screen with moral fervor as the radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens. One of the movie's most thrilling scenes is when he tears into Ohio Democrat George Pendleton on the House floor. Stevens elevates political argument to the level of art. I also loved Michael Stuhlbarg as Kentucky representative George Yeaman, who favors what Martin Luther King, Jr. would deride 100 years later as "the tranquilizing drug of gradualism." Yeaman's final moment of courage is like watching a man discover the sound of his own soul.
Best Supporting Actress nominee Sally Field is more problematic because she's a good two decades older than Mary Todd Lincoln would have been at the time. (Field would have been the right age when she played Forrest Gump's momma in the mid-'90s.) Despite the age disparity, she makes Mary's motherly concern palpable, and she's more than up to the task in scenes with Day-Lewis and Jones.
Page 2 of 2 - Like a crown jewel, "Lincoln" ranks near the top of Spielberg's filmography, fitting nicely with his other movies. His collaboration with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski continues to produce wonders. This could have been a stodgy gab-fest, but thanks to Kaminski it's dynamic from the start, when we see Lincoln in a dream he's having about himself. Kushner (who also wrote Spielberg's "Munich") never lets the film stray into sentimentality, but it's filled with Spielbergian scenes dealing with family life, most notably a very emotional scene when Lincoln and his young son talk about how much they miss Willie, the child the Lincolns' lost to typhoid fever. Spielberg's movies often feel quintessentially American, from the suburban settings in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T." to the prologue with River Phoenix in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", and "Lincoln" is no different.
The film has been a surprise juggernaut at the box office, grossing more than $150 million, which proves American audiences have better taste than the movie studios seem to believe and are hungry for intelligent entertainment. They should give us a few brainy blockbusters like "Lincoln" now and then.
"Lincoln" is playing this weekend at the Augusta Historic Theatre, 523 State Street. Showtime is 7:30pm on Saturday and 2pm on Sunday. Tickets are $6.
Stephen is an AHS graduate who studied film and journalism in college. He prefers "Lincoln" to "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter". He lives in Wichita.