The narrow focus of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" shows that through the course of his largest accomplishment a man really can be defined.
Lincoln's accomplishment, of course, was to finally find what the first "self-evident" truth of the Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal," truly meant, at least in a legal standpoint.
The Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson, is not a legal document. The stirring words contained within, though, represented the first major declaration that the philosophies of the enlightenment had taken root and that the new world had begun. The words have influenced what we perceive the United States to be and have worked to enlighten laws to reflect that perception since the very beginning of the nation.
Unfortunately, a film can not be divorced from the reality of the world, specifically America, at the time of its release. Circumstances and ideology have led to the nation being divided dramatically again, even to the point of independent groups in some states threatening secession, although not in a serious and legal way. Our political parties-which founding father George Washington had warned against in principle-have splintered into factions even within themselves. This is pertinent information for viewing "Lincoln," which was released Friday, in a light critical enough to understand the warnings and lessons that history can convey on us in our own time.
The course of events that lead to the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution is the window through which we are introduced to Abraham Lincoln incarnate, for Daniel Day-Lewis, the actor who plays him, is nowhere to be seen.
Despite the total lack of recording technology available in the 19th century-though daguerreotypes exist, along with portraits-Day-Lewis created a unique body in which to envision the president, and it might be unsettling for audiences to come to terms with the idea that this soft-spoken man who had a way with folsky witticisms and storytelling could really be the character that shouldered the weight of the Civil War, emancipation for the slaves, and the beginnings of racial equality.
It is the last issue that divided the congress and sets the dramatic tone for the film. With the House divided between the anti-emancipation Democrats and two separate factions of the Republican Party: the Radicals and the Conservatives, Lincoln's administration rushes to gather enough votes for the two-thirds majority required for constitutional amendments.
Tommy Lee Jones works magic to lionize Thaddeus Stevens, the leader of the radicals, as the hero for racial equality that he was, and has a remarkable ability to show the heart behind, and the surprising ability to temper, the rage and bile he spits at his foes and coerces the weak to his way of thinking.
The conservative faction is led by Preston Blair. Hal Holbrook plays Blair with paternal feeling and it is good to see him given a prominent role in the film following his playing Lincoln several times earlier, most notably in the 1970's miniseries also named Lincoln.
House debates back then are more in line with parliamentary proceedings in England than they are to today's house sessions. The debates are chaotic and filled with emotion and nasty tactics that aren't nearly as visible in today's world where politicians are weary of being caught in a sound bite that could destroy their career.
The casting is excellent and the talent runs deep, not just in secondary characters but also for tertiary characters like the three Democratic operatives led by W.N. Bilbo (the always hilarious and entertaining James Spader) who provide some comedy as they coerce lame duck Democrats for votes.
Sally Fields had petitioned to play Mary Todd Lincoln, and its easy to see why. Despite being 20 years older than Mary would have been at the time, there is a lot of emotional dialogue to chew on and a mental complexity of the characterwho had been committed to asylums in real lifeis something an actress of her caliber shouldn't pass up.
This is Spielberg's finest work to date mainly because his hand seems to disappear. The director steps aside, and even wore a period suit during the production, it is rumored, so as to get into the period himself. Stepping back has really helped Spielberg who more often than not gets a little heavy with flights of fantasy in his films or overbearing metaphors like the girl with the red dress in the otherwise black and white "Schindler's List" (1993).
Stepping back was the only thing to do to allow the documentary-like quality of the source material to shine without editorializing it. Tony Kushner, who had worked previously with Spielberg on 2005's great drama about another historical film about divided allegiances "Munich," worked Doris Kearns Goodwin's 2005 biography of Lincoln "Team of Rivals" very well.
The movie, with the incredible performances by all, beautiful cinematography, and a pacing that leaves us in anxious suspense even though we already know the outcome of history, is very nearly perfect.
(Flint McColgan is a staff writer for The Minot Daily News. His movie reviews will appear periodically in Thursday's Arts &?Entertainment section.)