Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln deviates from the traditional portrayal of the 16th U.S. president by fleshing out the mind of a person willing to risk everything for the abolition of slavery. Spielberg based his film on parts of Team of Rivals, a book by Doris Kearns Goodwin. He makes Abraham Lincoln relevant today by presenting a cunning political mind navigating Washington’s all too familiar divisions, gridlock, and power plays.
For about a century, Lincoln was portrayed as a monumental figure. In D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of A Nation, he is statuesque. In John Ford’s 1939 film, Young Mr. Lincoln, he is folksy and robotic.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is different.
“I was determined to make a movie about a working president not a posing president,” Spielberg said.
We watch the president first ending slavery and then the war.
In the museum at Ford’s Theater, where the 16th President was assassinated, historian Eric Martin explains how Lincoln’s thought process evolved.
“His first and foremost objective when the war began was not the freeing of the slaves but ultimately the preservation of the Union. Lincoln realizes that in order to attain his military goal of ultimately preserving and saving the Union, the question of slavery will have to be addressed,” Martin said.
The film focuses on the last four months of his presidency.
In the movie, the jockeying for votes in Congress to pass the amendment feels eerily similar to today’s wrangling on Capitol Hill.
The arguments in the House of Representatives were bitter.
The film turns to Lincoln’s relationships with his wife and kids, his convictions and constant self-examination. Daniel Day-Lewis offers an Oscar-worthy performance as the 16th President. Not only does he bear an uncanny resemblance to the president, he inhabits the character.
“In his book, Euclid says, ‘this is self-evident.’ You see there it is, even in that 2000 year-old book of mechanical law. It is a self-evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other,” Day-Lewis said.
“It’s the man himself that invites you. Because he was so open. That was one of the most beautiful surprises, getting to know him, was how insanely accessible that man was. The time was actually physically very dangerous in his case to be accessible but the White House was an ever open door,” Day-Lewis said.
Spielberg’s Lincoln will head to the Oscars. But more important, it will make history.