Most of the film takes place in January of 1865. Abraham Lincoln has been re-elected for a second term, and decided to risk all his "political capital" on ramming the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery) through the House of Representatives. This is a tough job: although the Amendment has passed the Senate, it failed once already in the House the previous summer. The canny Lincoln calculates that, due to the Democratic Party, which is generally against the Amendment, having lost a thundering 60 seats in the House in the November election, there may be enough lame-duck Democrats with nothing to lose who can be persuaded to vote in favor. (Although Secretary of State Seward and others calculated that the Amendment could pass in the heavily Republican incoming Congress, timing was everything to Lincoln, who both wanted the Amendment to be seen as a bipartisan measure, and rightly feared that if the war ended before the Amendment was passed, it would die as being not presently needed.)
If the number of researchers and archives referenced in the credits (numbers we usually see only for special-effects programmers, these days) is anything to go by, the movie seems historically sound, and could be used as a textbook case on how to legislate by wheeling and dealing. Not only did Lincoln have the Democrats to deal with, he also had to hold together the fractious wings of his own party: the Conservatives, who would also have preferred to see an end to the war before amending the Constitution; and the strongly abolitionist Radicals. In Lincoln's speeches to his cabinet and confidantes, Day-Lewis does an effective job of selling to us the emotional intensity and intellectual urgency of Lincoln's obsession with finishing the job.
The performances of Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln are definitely Oscar-worthy, and it is to be hoped that this noble film will garner more honors. Of course, Day-Lewis has been deservedly sweeping all before him in the "Best Actor" category, but it would be nice to see Field and nominated supporting actor Tommy Lee Jones (firebrand Congressman Thaddeus Stevens) win the statues also.
There is an excellent supporting cast, featuring David Strathairn as William Seward, Bruce McGill as Edwin Stanton, Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, and Jared Harris as Ulysses S Grant, among many, many others.
The film has also been nominated and won prizes for cinematography, costume, art direction, script, and score, and they are all worthy.
It is sometimes a hard film to watch. We know how it is going to end, of course, and getting there, the tremendous stresses Lincoln and his family are subject to, from within and without, are played with raw honesty. Nevertheless, I think it is a movie every American should see.
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