Daniel Day-Lewis should be declared the Oscar winner for this year and next and at least one more year after that one. He made me believe I had met Mr. Lincoln in the flesh, heard his twangy mid-Western voice and felt his great pain.
Bruce McGill, the reliable character actor, could have been given more lines as Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s God of War. Mr. McGill seldom misses a mark, anyway, but, his limited exposure in this film should guarantee life time employment for him. No one is better.
Sally Fields, as Mary Todd Lincoln, mostly hits her marks as well. Mrs. Lincoln was called the “hellcat” by John Hay and John Nicholay, Lincoln’s young personal secretaries. The screaming scene between Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln, almost unintelligible to the ear, is a wrenching demonstration of loss and love in marriage. Mrs. Lincoln spent her husband into virtual oblivion, watched with him as he aged ten years to one in the White House and wept with him over the loss of two of their four sons. Willie, the boy who died during their White House years of Potomac Fever (typhoid) plays a heavy part in this film while never actually appearing. Long before they came to the White House, the Lincolns had lost another young son, Eddie. He is not mentioned.
Willie was beloved by his doting father. Willie had a minor speech impediment and, reportedly, a sense of innocence and vulnerability, which made his departure into death harder for his father to bear. Lincoln never had a meaningful relationship with his own father, Thomas, who had probably been gelded during a brawl on the frontier after he fathered his children, with all the loss that entails for a man. Thomas worked Abraham more as an indentured servant than as an heir. Consequently, while Lincoln loved his step-mother, he had little use for his own father. He determined to be a better man than Thomas Lincoln and a better father to his boys.
The scenes in the House of Representatives are tight, claustrophobic and caustic. Short shrift is paid to Mr. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, perhaps in order to pay more attention to the club-footed Mr. Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, played by Texas rancher Tommy Lee Jones. Mr. Stevens certainly was a most interesting character. The film spends no time on his regular visitations to the brothels of Washington City but still manages to offer a (historically accurate) portrayal of one relationship, which comes as a surprise to some (and is obviously intended to do so). I will not comment on this scene, since various persons around me gasped when it was revealed.
The war scenes are grotesque, which means they combine just the right recipe of fury, hatred and filth. I am glad Mr. Spielberg did not overdo them. This is not a repeat of the first twenty-four minutes of Saving Private Ryan. If anything, the Lincoln movie is the least overwrought of Mr. Spielberg’s major works. He spent the larger part of Schindler’s List in understated mode, letting the little known story tell itself, and, in so doing, making the Holocaust real and personal. He twists and turns in Lincoln through the capitol of the USA in January, 1865, failing only in the last three scenes, short ones, to be sure, but I am almost certain he was torn between his desire to end the film on a dreamy note and his need to let people from today hear the words of Lincoln’s famed Second Inaugural in Day-Lewis’s perfect Lincoln voice.
I don’t blame him. I did not want the film to end, either. Frankly, though Mr. Spielberg does not need the money, I could wish this film would gross so much at the box office that he would feel the need to reassemble the cast and make a prequel. It probably should not happen and almost certainly will not happen but, as they say, if wishing could make it so….
Incidentally, much of the history is taken from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. If you are only going to have three books on Lincoln, get her book mentioned here. Also, get David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln and William Lee Miller’s Lincoln’s Virtues. After you digest those, you will want William Lee Miller’s President Lincoln: The Duty of a Stateman.