“Do we choose to be born? Or are we fitted to the times we’re born into?”
Just a disclaimer to start out with, I have never written a review for a film before, so this might be a little different from the norm. I’m not a huge movie buff like some of the others that have written on here. Thankfully though, I have the opportunity to write about a film that I was extremely excited about before going into the theater to see it. Like a lot of Americans, I really enjoy learning anything I can about the leaders that shaped this country: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin (yes, I realize he was not a president), and. of course, Abraham Lincoln. When asked who is the greatest president in the history of this nation, Lincoln is obviously one of the few that come to mind. However, due to his immense popularity in American culture today, he is viewed as relatively immortal and infallible. This movie did a fantastic job, mainly thanks to the fantastic performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, of showing the man behind the legend that we know as Abraham Lincoln. While Lincoln was obviously the main part of the story, the portrayal of the House of Representatives and the political struggles within it were tackled in the movie with grace and quite a bit of humor, and it had a very strong correlation with the modern political world.
The movie begins with a graphic scene of one of the last stages of the Civil War. Countrymen fighting their own countrymen. Black men fighting alongside white men. Both races fighting while the dead lay all around them. Both white and black men giving their lives for the cause. Though most movies covering the period of the Civil War cover the actual war, this movie was quite different, as this was the only real battle scene that was covered. Rather the scene quickly shifted to black soldiers conversing with Lincoln. To me, this was a very powerful scene. A president was not giving a speech to a group of soldiers or making a public appearance, but the President (in 1865, 100 years before the civil rights movement) was joking around and directly talking with two black soldiers. As two white soldiers approach Lincoln to discuss his memorable speech at Gettysburg, the white soldiers begin reciting his speech for him, but the black soldier finishes the speech. The speech again eludes to the battle scene shown before:
“we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Though this scene was short, it set the stage for the rest of the film.
The rest of the film is mainly set in the House of Representatives, where Lincoln is trying to get the 13th Amendment passed which would free slaves. Lincoln is soon confronted with the realization that there is a great possibility that he can either pass the 13th Amendment or seek a peace with the South, but probably not both. Like today’s political climate, the House was extremely divided, with the Republicans (keep in mind the roles of the two parties were pretty opposite to the modern parties) supporting the 13th Amendment and the Democrats against it. Lincoln still needed to get some votes from the Democrats, and the film shows he is certainly not above buying out these votes with future promises of political positions. However, even Lincoln is not liked among his own party the Republicans, since he is moderate compared to them, and the Democrats’ ties are with the South.
While Lincoln certainly has his hands full just with the House of Representatives, the film makes sure to call attention to the fact that Lincoln had much more on his plate. He had lost his son only three years earlier. His wife had become nearly irreconcilable after his son’s death. His country was still at war with itself. Lincoln has a scene in the movie with his wife, Mary Todd, where she seems like she cannot take it any more because of her son’s death. In this scene, Lincoln again reveals why he was such a great president. Lincoln admits that he too wanted to curl up in the hole with his buried son, but he couldn’t because of the great task given to him. In the end, Lincoln uses everything he can to get those votes he needs for the affirmative vote of the 13th Amendment, though this process weighs heavily on him. At the end of the Civil War, Ulysses Grant, played by Jared Harris, even notices that since he has last seen him, he has aged nearly 10 years.
As always, Daniel Day-Lewis provides a fantastic performance as Lincoln. Day-Lewis strictly adheres to historical accuracy, and it is apparent in the movie. He did not portray Lincoln as an overpowering figure, as many people perceive him, but instead portrayed him as the thoughtful, torn individual that he really was. His son’s death, crazy wife, the deaths of his countrymen in a war he could not stop, and the freedom of black people weighed on Lincoln while he tried to lead the country in one of its greatest crises in history; all while still trying to be a good father and husband. Day-Lewis captures this huge aspect of Lincoln extremely well.
The characters of the House of Representatives, led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the leader of the abolitionist group, were performed very well, with quite a bit of witty humor. Again, the film showed these politics with surprising accuracy, showing just how difficult it is to get politicians’ support of such a revolutionary change.
Though many films may have focused on Abraham Lincoln, few did it as well as this movie. While some focused on the Civil War itself, slavery, Lincoln’s assassination, or even vampire hunting, few have addressed the real Abraham Lincoln as well as this movie has.