Abraham Lincoln: All we've done is show the world that democracy isn't chaos. That there is a great, invisible strength in a people's union. Say we've shown that a people can endure awful sacrifice and yet cohere. Mightn't that save at least the idea of democracy to aspire to? Eventually to become worthy of? - Lincoln
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a movie that is far removed from Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and other crowd-pleasers that made him well-known and successful. It is not a rollicking globe-trotting action-adventure, nor is it a sweet fantasy for kids of all ages.
Instead, the 66-year-old director’s Lincoln is closer in tone and genre to his historical dramas Amistad, Schindler’s List, and Munich, which deal with slavery and characters driven to make moral choices.
Written by playwright/screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich) and based partially on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the movie focuses on the last four months in the life of America’s 16th President (Daniel Day-Lewis).
Though Lincoln is set during the closing stages of the Civil War, Spielberg only has one brief – if rather violent and chaotic – battle sequence at the opening of the movie. This engagement, known as the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry, took place in April of 1864 and was a fought by white and black Union troops against Confederate troops in Arkansas.
After a brief scene in which President Lincoln chats with veterans of Jenkins’ Ferry and hears his Gettysburg Address spoken by one of the young soldiers, Kushner and Spielberg focus on several pivotal events: the efforts to pass the 13th Amendment (to abolish slavery) in the House of Representatives, the efforts of the Confederacy to seek a negotiated peace, and General Lee’s surrender to Gen. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.
Along the way, Lincoln explores the President’s melancholic personal life. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) is still in mourning for their dead son Willie and is adamant that oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) not be allowed to join the Union Army.
Abraham Lincoln: I ought to have done it, I ought have done for Tad's sake! For everybody goddamned sake! I should've clapped you in the madhouse!
Mary Todd Lincoln: Then do it! Do it! Don't you threaten me, you do it this time! Lock me away! You'll have to, I swear if Robert is killed!
Lincoln also has to help his younger son, Tad, to cope with Willie’s death and Mary’s often difficult temperament.
Because much of Lincoln’s 150-minute running time is devoted to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, it is a dialogue-heavy film that depends on the spoken word as much as it does on Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography.
To make a compelling movie about politics, Spielberg relies heavily on the talents of Academy Award-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who won a third Best Actor Oscar for Lincoln.
Aided by creative contributions from costume designer Joanna Johnston and makeup designer Lois Burwell, Day-Lewis channels the homespun humor, wisdom, and intelligence of Abraham Lincoln. The “rough man from Illinois,” born in a log cabin in Kentucky and a self-educated man who read Euclid by candlelight comes to life via Day-:Lewis’ focused performance.
Screenwriter Kushner, who co-wrote 2005’s Munich with Eric Roth for Spielberg, gives the Irish actor lines that show many sides of Lincoln’s personality. As Lincoln, Day-Lewis gets to deliver crowd-pleasing stories, parables, and quick comic asides:
Abraham Lincoln: I could write shorter sermons but when I get started I'm too lazy to stop.
But Lincoln was far from being just an “Aw, shucks” spinner of tales and humorous quips. There was a keen and calculating politician’s mind under the famous stovepipe hat Lincoln often wears, and Day-Lewis shows this, too:
Abraham Lincoln: Abolishing slavery by constitutional provisions settles the fate for all coming time. Not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come. Two votes stand in its way. These votes must be procured.
William Seward: We need two yeses. Three abstentions. Four yeses and one more abstention and the amendment will pass.
Abraham Lincoln: You've got a night and a day and a night; several perfectly good hours! Now get the hell out of here and get them!
James Ashley: Yes. But how?
Abraham Lincoln: Buzzard's guts, man! I am the President of the United States of America! Clothed in immense power! You will procure me these votes.
Spielberg and casting director Avy Kaufman surround their leading man with a great supporting cast. In addition to Field and Gordon-Levitt, Lincoln features outstanding performances by Tommy Lee Jones (Thaddeus Stevens), Hal Holbrook (Preston Blair), James Spader (William N. Bilbo), David Strathairn as William Seward, and Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens.
Though Lincoln is about politics and historical figures (some of whose names have been changed on purpose), it is never dull or a whitewash of U.S. history. It accurately depicts 1860s attitudes about race in America by showing that Northerners were just as prejudiced toward blacks as the Southerners. The “N-word” is uttered many times during the long debates before the vote on the Thirteenth Amendment’s passage. There’s also a scene where a black Union soldier predicts, to Lincoln himself, that it will take more than 100 years before “Negroes” will be able to vote throughout the U.S.
While Lincoln will probably never unseat Raiders of the Lost Ark, Saving Private Ryan, or Schindler’s List from many viewers’ “Favorite Steven Spielberg Films” lists, it’s one of the best movies that the two-time Best Director Oscar-winner has made. Spielberg strives for reverence without wallowing in sentimentality. His vision of Lincoln – portrayed to perfection by Day-:Lewis – shows the President’s wisdom and political savvy without heading into “St. Abraham” mythologizing.
Lincoln Blu-ray Specifications and Extras (4-Disc Combo Pack)
Format: AC-3, Box set, Dolby, DTS Surround Sound, Dubbed, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen, Multiple Formats
Language: English (DTS-HD High Res Audio), French (Dolby Digital 5.1), Spanish (Dolby Digital 5.1)
Subtitles: French, Spanish, English
Dubbed: French, Spanish
Region: Region A/1
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
Number of discs: 4
Rated: PG-13 (Parental Guidance Suggested)
DVD Release Date: March 26, 2013
Run Time: 150 minutes
Disc 1: (Blu-ray Feature Film and Bonus)
- The Journey to Lincoln
- A Historical Tapestry: Richmond, Virginia
Disc 2: (Blu-ray Additional Bonus)
- In the Company of Character
- Crafting the Past
- Living with Lincoln
- In Lincoln's Footsteps
Disc 3: (DVD Feature Film + Bonus)
- The Journey to Lincoln
Disc 4: Digital Copy of Feature Film