This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Andrew’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
- Amendment XIII of the United States Constitution
Foreword: The film has a significant focus on the different political parties that are for, or against, the 13th Amendment. The parties are the Democratic Party, the Moderate Republicans, and the Radical Republicans. They are a far cry from the political parties that exist today. Using anachronistic examples, the closest comparisons would be the current Republican Party are more like the Democratic Party of the 1860's and the moderate and Radical Republicans bears similarity to the moderate and liberal members of the current Democratic Party. These aren't perfect examples, but can be used as a guideline of sorts.
As the Civil War rages on in 1865, it enters it's fourth year and continues to tear the nation apart. President Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) wants to pass the 13th Amendment in to law but faces numerous obstacles. The Amendment had already passed in the Senate but had yet to reach the floor of the House of Representatives. However, President Lincoln knows that there are not enough Congressmen in the House who would vote for the Amendment. He and Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), know that they need to win over the votes of some of the moderate Republicans and Democrats to get the Amendment passed. They decide to offer the Congressmen, who they think may vote for the Amendment, with positions in their respective state's government if they vote yes. At the same time, the Moderate Republicans, led by the founder of the Republican Party Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), urges Lincoln to meet with envoys from the Confederacy to begin peace talks. Besieged on all sides, President Lincoln must do whatever he can to pass the 13th Amendment before the start of his second term.
Director Steven Spielberg and Screenwriter Tony Kushner did an excellent job at bringing the story of President Lincoln's hard fought battle to pass the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives. Adapted from the book, Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, the film chooses to solely focus on the fight to pass the 13th Amendment. I have to say that I agree with this choice because trying to adapt a 900 page book into a movie would be too much to fit in one film.
While the film glorifies President Lincoln, putting him on a pedestal, the movie doesn't shy away from some of Lincoln's political decisions to get the Amendment passed. Some of Lincoln's past foibles and faults are glossed over with a few lines of dialogue here and there. Despite all of this, the movie does an excellent job of giving a very solid look at the sixteenth president and what he fought for and his efforts to guide the nation through the turmoil of the Civil War. I also found Spielberg's and Kushner's decision to have Lincoln's assassination off screen an interesting choice. It certainly subverted my expectations and it was a bold move. I'm not sure if I agree fully with the decision, but I applaud them for doing something different that the audience probably wouldn't expect.
The acting in the film is absolute perfection. There are very little weak spots among this giant cast of characters. The titular character played by Daniel Day-Lewis is stunning. From his slight stoop when standing, his personal charm that always leaves the people around him enraptured, a weariness that sits on his soul, his political savvy and leadership is all embodied in Day-Lewis' performance. When he is not talking, just seeing his posture, while standing or sitting, and seeing the look on his face, is nothing short of brilliance. Even what his cadence was like when he spoke is what I would imagine that President Lincoln would sound like. Daniel Day-Lewis is President Abraham Lincoln personified.
It is not only Daniel Day-Lewis who gave an excellent performance, there were so many standouts that deserve praise. A few of the best performances are Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William H. Seward, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, Lee Pace as Fernando Wood and Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, which was the biggest surprise for me since he captured so much of who Grant was in his small amount of screen time. Adam Driver even has a small role in the film.
On a technical side, the film is near perfection. The production design stood out, from the muddy battlefields, to the halls of the White House, everything feels like you're looking at film footage of 19th century America. The costumes, hair and makeup are excellent as well, making everybody look like they were from the 1860s. John Williams stirring score makes its presence known to help bolster the film with a very subdued, but powerful presence. Finally, the cinematography, my god, it was absolutely stunning. Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński did a wonderful job, using natural lighting, such as with shadows that hits a characters face which helps evoke the mood of the scene.
After the film ended, I realized that I want to learn more about President Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. While it's a subject that I have studied to a degree, I realize that there is so much more that I need to learn. A masterpiece in every sense of the word, director Steven Spielberg's film on the passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution, is an engaging piece of cinema. Despite some minor faults, mostly not fully exploring some of President Lincoln's faults, the film is an achievement in historical adaptations for the big screen and just cinema in general. Anyone who is interested in United States history, a Civil War buff, a Presidential historian, or just someone who is interested in giving this movie a try, will not be disappointed. I highly, highly, highly recommend it!!!