Somewhere in the middle of the new, two-and-a-half-hour long Steven Spielberg historical drama, Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis’ eponymous title character speaks to a Union soldier about an incident that had occurred during the American civil war. A 16-year-old boy had been sentenced to hang as a punishment for laming his horse to avoid going into battle.
Lincoln asks the soldier if their general would complain if he were to pardon the boy. The soldier remarks that his general feels Lincoln pardons too many already. Lincoln replies, “War is nearly done… What use another corpse? If I were to hang every 16-year-old boy for cruelty to a horse, or for being frightened, there wouldn’t be any 16-year-old boys left.”
There are several such moments when Day-Lewis’ Lincoln narrates off-hand, arbitrary stories, sometimes funny, sometimes absurd, but always with the singular intention to drive home tough points to tougher people in a compassionate, gentle way. Spielberg uses this precise approach with his movie too, and it has the precise outcome – like the many men and women of that time, who were smitten by President Lincoln’s charm and awestruck by his aura, we are sold too.
The movie isn’t a broad biography of USA’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln; it’s about a specific time in his leadership and a momentous time in our modern history, where he successfully fought for the abolishment of slavery through democratic means – the passing of The Thirteenth Amendment of the United States. At the outset, this seems to be too narrow a period to adequately portray the man, Abraham Lincoln, behind the great leader of men, President Lincoln, but Spielberg surprises with the incredible panache with which he pulls off this enormous task.
We already know the climax of the film, but even with that constraint, Spielberg packs in enough layers of drama and emotion, with just the right amount of wit and light humour, that at every point of the masterful screenplay, written by Tony Kushner of Munich fame, we are continually anxious to know what happened next, and how! Of course, like all great dramas, Lincoln has an unhurried, deliberate pace, that at times gets a bit too slow, but by and large, the proceedings are far too compelling to worry about the time. The movie could have definitely ended five minutes before it did, though – showing the assassination was entirely unnecessary and looked forced.
Most of the drama comes from Lincoln’s predicament that Spielberg ably showcases and Day-Lewis spectacularly portrays through the length of the film, of how the president must go about trying to pass the Amendment in Congress before the civil war comes to an end – because once it ends, the bill could never be passed – even as he must try to end the war independently, to bring an end to the suffering. Spielberg gives Lincoln the shades of being a kind and fair leader, but one, who could be tough and do what had to be done, if the situation demanded it.
All this while, his relationship with his emotionally unstable wife (Sally Field), his son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who’s determined to go to war despite his family's opposition, his peers including the aggressive leader of the Republican Party (a brilliant and terrifically entertaining Tommy Lee Jones) and his rivals, make for an absorbing biography too.
And of course, while there’s hardly any need to say it, it must be said all the same: two-time Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis is a modern god of acting, and it’s hard to imagine if President Lincoln himself could have portrayed his self on screen so expertly. Day-Lewis gets under the skin of the role, just like he always does, and makes Lincoln his own, and from every pause he takes between his lines, to every twitch of his face, he is so utterly convincing, that there’s absolutely no way Lincoln could’ve been any different in real life.
There’s another question that Lincoln asks a soldier somewhere in the middle of the film that stays behind long after the film: “Do you think we choose the times into which we are born? Or do we fit the times we are born into?” Day-Lewis is the kind of actor who chose to be born in today’s times to play the roles he’s chosen to play in the films he’s chosen to play them in, and while there are several reasons Lincoln is an excellent watch at the theaters, Day-Lewis’ performance is worth the price of the ticket alone.