Daniel Day-Lewis may be on his way to a third Academy Award with his vivid and layered portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”
Spielberg also may be a contender in the best director category and assuredly “Lincoln” will be up for Best Picture.
Day-Lewis, who always has a commanding screen presence, electrifies again as a weary President Lincoln, although worn down by a costly Civil War but seeing a possible resolution is driven to end the conflict and bring the country back together again.
“Lincoln” focuses on the early months of 1865. Although the Union army has gained an advantage over the Confederates, Lincoln knows the war’s end is anything but definite. So he is pushing for the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which would abolish slavery. The Senate had already passed the amendment but it also had to pass the House of Representatives. Despite a Republican majority in the House, support for passage still was short the required two-thirds vote.
Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a man of great compassion, mostly self-educated but brilliant. A great orator, he also was able to make a point using simple, often humorous stories.
Another strength of “Lincoln” is the exceptional cast and its exploration of the inner workings of government. Tommy Lee Jones is a standout as Republican stalwart Thaddeus Stevens, a longtime advocate of ending slavery, but also an acid-tongued man not known for being cordial to his colleagues in Congress.
David Strathairn is perfectly cast as Secretary of State Williams Seward, who despite his own feelings of hopelessness on the passage of the 13th Amendment nevertheless works tirelessly behind the scenes to insure its passage.
Seward supervises some behind-the-scenes maneuvers, employing three men, W.N. Bilbo (a hilarious James Spader), Robert Latham (John Hawkes) and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson) to offer token jobs in exchange for yes votes on the amendment.
Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, Bruce McGill as Edwin Stanton, Michael Stuhlbarg as George Yeaman — who deals with his own ambivalence over the 13th Amendment and delivers a key vote — Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens and Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley, a White House servant who lost her son in the war, all present small but key moments as the critical day of the amendment vote in the House approaches.
Lincoln also has family issues to deal with. Mary Todd Lincoln, mostly recalled in history as an unstable woman besieged by family tragedies, is portrayed by Sally Field, who presents a First Lady as fragile but also haughty and unyielding in keeping the pressure on her husband to make sure oldest son Robert is not harmed in the war.
Joseph Gordon-Leavitt does not get to do much as Robert, a young man driven to serve in the Union army, determined not to be shielded because his father is president.
The screenplay by Tony Kushner, who worked with Spielberg on “Munich,” had to be a complex undertaking with so many spoken roles, including a big chunk of the amendment vote roll call. Anchored by Day-Lewis as Lincoln, the script captures the intense passion of those times.
Although “Lincoln” is centered around the final four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, it captures the essence of the man, thanks largely to the brilliant work by Day-Lewis. And Spielberg weaves together a wonderful ensemble piece that with humor and drama draws the audience into a pivotal time in U.S. history.