Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Lincoln’: A Perfect POTUS Portrait

August 9, 2020 Updated: August 13, 2020

PG-13 | | Biography, Drama, History | 16 November 2012 (USA)

Our nation currently and unfortunately suffers from even deeper skepticism toward government than ever before, which is why it’s inspirational to go back and have a look at “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s wonderful biopic.

As Spielberg mentioned in the production notes, “In this day and age when so many people have lost faith in the idea of governance, it’s a story that shows that you can achieve miraculous, beautiful things through the democratic system.”

man lecturing before a crowd in "Lincoln"
President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) in a scene from the dramatic biopic “Lincoln,” about the 16th U.S. president’s Civil War efforts and the fighting in his cabinet regarding the emancipation of slaves. (David James/DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.)

The Script of ‘Lincoln’

Published in 2005, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 944-page mega-bestseller, “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” provided just the ingredients that Spielberg had been hoping to find in order to tell a Lincoln story. Out of that massive tome, he and writing superstar Tony Kushner settled on telling the story of the 16th president’s passing of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution: the abolition of slavery.

president and soldiers in "Lincoln"
The 16th U.S. president (Daniel Day-Lewis) meets with Civil War soldiers in the biopic “Lincoln.” (David James/DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.)

This particular slice of Honest Abe’s life distills his essence. It provides insight into his family life, emotional life, and political genius. It’s packed with suspense, drama, and crisis. Can Lincoln end slavery—and hold the Union together—before the South surrenders?

dead soldiers on battlefield in "Lincoln"
Dead Rebel and Union soldiers in a battlefield scene from “Lincoln.” (David James/DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.)

To the Manor Born

Similar to Ben Kingsley being born to play Gandhi, Daniel Day-Lewis was born to play Abraham Lincoln. Day-Lewis simply is him. The hair and makeup is brilliant, and Day-Lewis utterly inhabits the 6-foot-4-inch gangling ranginess and faltering walk.

Man reclining holding papers in "Lincoln"
The 16th U.S. president (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) relaxes in the White House in a scene from the dramatic biopic “Lincoln.” (David James/DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.)

Despite the somber weightiness of those ancient sepia-toned historical images, America’s 16th POTUS is brought to life as an avuncular, prolifically jokey raconteur, and although one assumes a man of that size and historical gravitas to be a basso profundo, Day-Lewis nails the president’s real voice, which was apparently surprisingly tenor. (It’s a sort of Mike Tyson moment.) And then you immediately acclimatize and have the odd, slightly eerie sensation of feeling in your bones that this was the definitive voice, and here it is, speaking to you out of the distant past. In a split second, one moves from “Oh, there’s Daniel playing Abraham” to a wholesale suspension of disbelief—we witness Lincoln. Movie magic indeed.

man sitting on porch in "Lincoln"
The 16th U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) in the biopic “Lincoln.” (David James/DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.)

Sally Field, if not heavily supervised, will normally suck all the air out of a room, but not here. As Mary Todd Lincoln, she grounds the great man’s wife in believability, while leaving lingering questions as to the validity of the classic phrase “Behind every great man, there’s a great woman.” As per this great “Lincoln,” there’s a woman, in any case.

woman in hoop skirt on couch in "Lincoln"
Sally Fields as Mary Todd Lincoln in the biopic “Lincoln.” (David James/DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.)

And while “Lincoln” is not quite on par with Spielberg’s magnum opus, “Schindler’s List, it’s close. Part of Spielberg’s artistry lies in the creation of atmosphere, and a heartwarming Americana is strongly palpable throughout.

John Williams’s cello-laden score and the chiaroscuro dark browns, blacks, muted blues, and hazy grays evoke deep American nostalgia as surely as do the words Antietam, Fort Sumter, Ticonderoga, William Tecumseh Sherman, Gettysburg, Confederacy, and Martha Washington.

man in deep though in "Lincoln"
The 16th U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) ponders a speech in the biopic “Lincoln.” (David James/DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.)

It takes a minute to downshift to a time where things moved slower, people memorized political speeches, quoted Euclid, and savored sophisticated insults. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens has a great line: “Slavery is the only insult to natural law, you fatuous nincompoop.”

man in crowded room in "Lincoln"
Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) in “Lincoln.” (David James/DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.)

Pick Your Battles

In the aftermath of  “Lincoln,” one feels like one has come to know the man. One feels the warmth, love of humanity, and the high moral stature on display in his attempts to change history and save people. In one of the movie’s most powerful scenes, President Lincoln rides out on horseback to witness Civil War battlefield carnage. He is stunned and at a loss for words.

man in top hat rides horse in "Lincoln"
The 16th U.S. president (Daniel Day-Lewis) rides out to survey the war in the biopic “Lincoln.” (David James/DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.)

There should be an amendment to the Constitution that all American presidents be required to get astride a horse and personally go see the carnage of their wars. “Lincoln” illustrates the weightiness of the decisions a U.S. president must carry.

dead soldiers on battlefield in "Lincoln"
U.S. Civil War aftermath in the biopic “Lincoln.” (David James/DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.)

For Lincoln-like times, may the high moral stature, humor, and courage on display in “Lincoln” shine the light of hope on the path of all future American leaders.

man in rocking chair reading to boy in "Lincoln"
President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) reads to his son in “Lincoln.” (David James/DreamWorks II Distribution Co., LLC.)

‘Lincoln’
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Release Date: Nov. 16, 2012
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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