Lincoln’s Complexity Explored on Screen

By Marcel Thee on 10:15 pm Mar 22, 2013
Daniel Day-Lewis has wowed audiences with his thoughtful portrayal of former president Abraham Lincoln. (Image courtesy of DreamWorks)

Daniel Day-Lewis has wowed audiences with his thoughtful portrayal of former president Abraham Lincoln. (Image courtesy of DreamWorks)

Film director Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” recaptures the last four months of the former US president’s life. The movie opens with a poetically brutal shot of the American civil war. It ends with mourners gathering at Abraham Lincoln’s bedside after his assassination by actor and confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.

Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner, the screenplay holds an elegiac tone amid high political drama and is based on the 2005 novel “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.

The plot follows Lincoln’s attempts in 1865 to have the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution passed by the House of Representatives — a move that would effectively end slavery in America.

At more than two hours, “Lincoln” would be a difficult movie for the average Indonesian to sit through. The historical density of the story also doesn’t lend itself well to those with no prior knowledge of the events that led to the president’s downfall.

Perhaps why the film is so powerful is because Spielberg has resisted his tendency to sensationalize, with only John Williams’ graceful but sparing score highlighting key moments.

In “Lincoln,” all the sly political maneuvers of the time are exposed. Bitter compromises and systematic bribery dog the president, as he faces challenges not only from his Democratic foes, but his Republican allies. No doubt this will resonate with an Indonesian audience all too familiar with the cut and thrust of domestic politics.

Kushner’s screenplay mostly does away with the romanticism that sometimes comes with Lincoln’s name and his anti-slavery stance. Indeed, while Lincoln’s strong moral compass is more than hinted at, the script has fun showcasing his political savvy too.

The constitutional bill would effectively crush the confederacy’s financial strength, and Lincoln knows this. He was also masterful at reading people and the movie shines when it focuses on these aspects of his character instead of taking the easier, valorizing route.

Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting ability is, at this point, undeniable. Regardless of the hype, the actor embodies Lincoln compellingly, through cautious mannerisms and a thoughtful demeanor.

Sally Field also captures what Spielberg called the fragility and complexity of Mary Todd Lincoln, without falling victim to over-annunciations and dramatics. Tommy Lee Jones’s turn as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican leader and impassioned abolitionist, equals Day-Lewis in his intensity.

The absorbing nature of “Lincoln” means that it plays out like a modern version of a chamber play.

And the gorgeous cinematography by Janusz Kamiski captures the wistful determination of the president with a mature emotional resonance not often seen in films.

Nominated for “Best Picture” at this year’s Academy Awards, “Lincoln” is showing at cinemas around the country.


Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Tony Kushner
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones
150 minutes
English with Indonesian subtitles