Steven Spielberg made several great decisions when he set out to tell the story of Abraham Lincoln's struggle to secure the passage of the thirteenth amendment as he struggled to end the Civil War. Spielberg is such a renowned and respected director, that I think his name alone, often drives people to the theater. However, on Lincoln, it felt more like Spielberg stepped back and surrounded himself with other people that could make this movie brilliant.
Daniel Day Lewis was born to play Lincoln. Really, there is nothing Lewis can't do and he's one of those rare actors that transforms himself each time he plays a new character. I will call it now, another Oscar for his shelf. The movie is very much an ensemble piece with a huge supporting cast of prestigious actors. I couldn't believe all of the familiar faces in minor roles, including an unrecognizable Jared Harris as General Ulysses S. Grant and Hal Holbrook as Francis Preston Blair. I love seeing John Hawkes in anything, he's such a great character actor.
The real stand outs are Sally Field, as Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones, as Thaddeus Stevens. They both delivered searing and heartbreaking performances, as characters suffering from decisions made by others and out of their hands. Both characters are crushed by their circumstances and fighting to make their voices heard. They are in different predicaments, but mirror each other. all the same.
The outstanding cast was only part of the equation, I think the biggest reason for the brilliance of this film, is that the screenplay is by Tony Kushner. I am biased. Tony Kushner is my favorite living playwright. I absolutely love his writing and envy his talent.
I even had a personal encounter with him, one that made me respect him even more, if that was even possible. Many years ago, I saw him speak at UCLA Live and after the talk, I was first in line at the book signing. I had brought with me, my very tattered and much loved copy of Angels In America, both parts. When he came to sign my books, he had never seen those particular editions and was surprised at how much I had obviously read them. He ended up talking to me for long time, giving me writing advice and recommending authors. The line behind me was huge and growing impatient, but he kept chatting. I was blown away by this and can say with a 100% certainty, that this was the most star struck that I've ever been in my entire life. This includes the time that I ran, literally, full force into Meryl Streep and almost knocked her down. She was a class act about it too!
Kushner is one of those writers that can write epic stories, perfectly encapsulating the emotional core of a character and their drive in a single moment. There was nothing extraneous in the story and everything he writes drives both the plot and character. He has a knack for writing long monologues, yet no word is supplementary.
One of the things that I love the most about Kushner's writing, is his ability to inject levity into serious subject matter. He never tackles easy subjects, yet he always manages to make me laugh. Lincoln is a heavy drama, but it has many laugh out loud moments. I'm not sure how true it is to History, but the Lincoln in this movie, has a great sense of humor and timing.
The scale of the movie, a majority of it centering on the most critical last weeks of the thirteenth amendment vote, gives an immediacy and intensity to the story. It's not so much a Lincoln bio-pic, but the story of Lincoln's biggest legacy and of the other players in the history of the amendment. Bringing the story in on a micro scale, made it less about the man and more about the Historical significance of January 1865. In the bigger picture, it is a reminder that although the president might be the figurehead, but he is never alone in the decisions that change our History. Kushner always writes in so many layers, that it is impossible to stop thinking about his works and discovering new meaning.
I think that they should turn it into a stage play. Not just because Kushner is foremost a playwright, just the movie script would lend itself very well to a stage version and even with everything done right in this movie, it would be a very emotionally charged night done live. When a stage play is well done, when all the components gel, it creates an air of magic that just never quite happens in a movie theater.