★★★★ / ★★★★
Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is up for a second term as the president of the United States and he is determined to pass the Thirteenth Amendment, designed to ban slavery across the country, by the end of January 1865. Although it had been passed by the Senate on April 1864, the House of Representatives is an entirely new arena: twenty more votes from the democratic side are required to pass the amendment. With the American Civil War in its fourth year and everyone is growing weary, Lincoln believes it is of utmost importance, morally and politically, to douse slavery and its possible reemergence once and for all before the war comes to a close.
As someone who does not know much about Lincoln other than the fact that he had managed to abolish slavery prior to his assassination, I found “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg, as an educational and moving portrait of a leader who has, in a theory, a lot of power but at the same time almost enslaved to it because his ambitions are not often in tune with a public that is either not ready for or not willing to face radical changes.
Choosing to focus on a specific time frame of Lincoln’s legacy is smart because it gives us ample time to get to know the man on a more personal angle. While we are given several chances to observe how he interacts with those closest to him professionally, fellow republicans, and democrats, it is interesting that much importance is placed on his internal personal struggles to make slavery illegal. This is when Day-Lewis’ sublime performance comes into play. Yes, he looks very eerily like the Lincoln we see in photographs but without the specific knowing and sparkle in his eyes, most of us might find it difficult to believe his character for wanting to push for the change that he thinks the country needs in order to move forward or at least be better than it was prior to the hundreds of thousands lives lost in the Civil War.
As a side note, this may sound strange because we often yearn for the opposite but because Day-Lewis’ performance feels so complete, I found myself wanting to see a glimpse of the actor playing Lincoln. Eventually, I felt like I was able to but it required considerable effort and patience. When the actor is quiet, it is like staring down a sphinx. And most of the time Lincoln keeps his feelings to himself. But when he shows the anger and frustration of his character, those very discerning can recognize the man behind the performance. I wish I can tell you why my gut needed a reminder that I was watching an actor playing Lincoln. Perhaps it is an uncommonly traversed avenue to connect with the material on a deeper level.
The look of the picture is also impressive. I like to look at faces, especially in profile, and so I could not help but notice the way light is utilized to create an additional angle on a face or shadow to reflect fears or doubts during one-on-one conversations. A similar observation can be applied when the camera pulls away from the faces. Since most of the deliberations occur indoors, when there is a special point to be made, most of the light is focused on the center of the room. And yet at the same time, the dark sides and corners of the room draw us in. It is a fascinating way to tie in to the picture’s overarching theme. A room can be interpreted as a reflection of the nation’s attitudes toward putting slavery to death. Although most of those under bright lights are informed and ready for change, there are those who remain in the dark, some will do anything to resist being in that light. Imagine if the rooms had been completely lit. The mystery painted on the people’s faces and the tension in the room might have been absent altogether.
“Lincoln,” based on the screenplay by Tony Kushner, is also peppered with memorable performances by Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife still in a state of grief over their son’s passing due to typhus, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s eldest son who wishes to leave school and enlist in the army, and David Strathairn as the Secretary of State. Because the film is able to function as a character study, Lincoln the storyteller being the most revealing and entertaining, as well as detailing a specific time in history, it overcomes our awareness that the Thirteenth Amendment will inevitably pass.