we last saw Steven Spielberg, he was in John Ford territory with “War Horse,” a
film whose final shot especially recalled the old master’s fondness for rousing
sublimity. As such, you might assume that Spielberg would take a similar route
by crafting a melodramatic spiritual successor to "Young Mr. Lincoln"; however,
this isn't quite the case since this "Lincoln" is both a measured historical
dissection and a stirring biography.
The title betrays the film as a standard issue, cradle-to-the-grave biopic when
it’s actually a riveting political drama that’s as engaging as it is inspiring
in its exploration of the world around Lincoln. In truth, the film paints a
wider portrait of the political machinery operating behind the Civil War;
however, the sixteenth president casts a long shadow, and the result is the most
comprehensive cinematic portrait of Lincoln: his genius, his triumphs, his
failings, his folksiness, and, most importantly, his overwhelming greatness.
Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of
Abraham Lincoln,” Spielberg’s film peers into a brief but crucial window in
history. A couple of months after Lincoln’s re-election, the war is winding to
its conclusion, which is both a boon and a burden for the president. On the one
hand, the its end preserves the Union; on the other, it also ensures that even a
preserved Union is likely to still abide slavery. Contrary to the grade school
perception of history, slavery didn’t end with the Emancipation Proclamation,
nor was it snuffed out by default when Lee surrendered at Appomattox.
Instead, Lincoln and the Republican party faced dissention within congress over
the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment that would outlaw slavery, so the film
chronicles his administration’s furious attempt to ram the bill through the
House before the war’s end drains the perceived political need for the
amendment. The president, of course, is looking beyond its immediate function
and views it as a victory for fundamental human rights, and the film rightly
presents him as a woodsy Machiavellian figure masquerading as some sort of an
While history has revealed the Democrats’ folly in underestimating Lincoln, this
film accurately presents him as a beleaguered leader under siege from a
fractious segment of his own government, so it sort of unfolds like a
conventional underdog story that finds Lincoln and his cabinet unafraid to muck
around in political grey areas. This isn’t unfailingly honest Old Abe from
schoolbooks on display here but instead a shrewd, calculating statesman who
deploys associates to engage in dirty work on his behalf, and the film’s
through-line tracks the administration’s progress in securing the remaining
necessary votes--many of which are essentially bribed and bought off by a trio
of lobbyists--from dissenting Democrats.
Far from a ponderous, mechanical political procedural, Tony Kushner’s script
injects the film with wit and warmth without undercutting its momentous drama.
The film is very entertaining and fascinating despite a sprawling approach that
supplements Lincoln’s public struggle with his private, familial conflicts.
Presenting a more intimate view of Lincoln’s life, this dimension reveals that
the president had to navigate a different sort of minefield behind closed doors;
lined with his eccentric but influential wife’s grief, his son’s desire to join
the Union cause, and his own lingering regret over his youngest son’s death, the
president somehow managed to tiptoe around all of this and lead the country
through its most tumultuous era.
By the end of the film, you’re of course presented with the portrait of an
extraordinary man, but I was more struck by Daniel Day Lewis’s ability to exist
beyond the historical monolith. As President Lincoln, he’s the new standard
bearer; not only does he physically match the sixteenth’s president’s craggy
looks and awkward gait, but he also brings a folksy, Kentuckian lilt to
Lincoln’s voice that’s more historically accurate than the booming,
authoritative delivery enshrined in pop culture. Not that Lewis’s Lincoln isn’t
authoritative, a fact that becomes clear as soon as he commands the screen
without even being glimpsed during the film’s opening scene. From his first
lines, there is no mistaking Lewis as anyone but Abraham Lincoln, as the actor
transcends performance; this is something of a complete transformation that’s
done in a most unassuming and unobtrusive manner.
Lewis’s ability to simply glide into the role is never more evident than it is
during the film’s smaller, quieter scenes, of which there are many; the
performance here often feels like the natural extension of Henry Fonda’s in
Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” as Lewis captures the homespun, personal qualities
that made Lincoln so endearing. He provides the all-time definitive answer about
which president you’d like to have a beer with: it’s Lincoln, specifically his
Lincoln, a guy who was just comfortable commanding a room and drawing in an
audience by spinning some anecdotal yarn. An earnest, undiluted sense of pure
humanity flows from the performance that renders Lincoln into a simple man
thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
Spielberg’s incredible ensemble surrounds Lewis with equally matched talent that
pushes “Lincoln” beyond its one-man show confines. Lewis is shouldered by nearly
a dozen fine performances; most prominent is Tommy Lee Jones as famed
abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, here fueled by spitfire and pointed, witty barbs.
Jones is often in loveable curmudgeon mode, but there’s also a great,
understated moment late in the film that finds Stevens alone in the
congressional chamber on the eve of the amendment’s vote, and the momentousness
is felt in the actor’s body language. We’ve only spent a couple of hours with
this character, but it’s clear that his entire life has come down to this
moment, so Spielberg finds a nice balance between the levity and poignancy found
in the character.
Sally Field gives a nuanced performance as Mary Todd Lincoln, a complicated
figure who demands the almost schizophrenic turn here. Like her husband, she’s
able to publicly shed the grief that privately torments her, and Field is at her
best when she’s right there on the political front lines with her husband. She’s
every bit as tough as the president, and the fiery Field even holds her own
against Jones’s Stevens in one of the film’s more memorable encounters.
With so many noteworthy performances, it seems a disservice to even undersell
one of them. David Strathairn provides stability as Secretary of State William
Seward, and the chemistry he shares with Lewis makes for an uncanny relationship
built on respect, admiration, and even a little tough love. The cadre of
lobbyists assembled by Seward is perhaps the most unexpected delight;
spearheaded by James Spader, the trio (rounded out by John Hawkes and Tim
Blake-Nelson) bring a refreshing comic touch to the political proceedings.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is fine in the role of the bleeding heart idealist aching
to move to the front lines. Simply put, there’s not a bad performance in the
bunch, and each actor is finely tuned on the same wavelength by Spielberg.
The director is the guiding force, but Spielberg’s touch is arguably as subtle
as it’s ever been. He knows he’s assembled one of the most impressive casts of
his career, so he lets them carry the load; likewise, his production design is
sturdy and correct, photographed with lush acuity by Janusz Kaminski, so the
period is authentically realized with a sparse natural quality. Spielberg’s most
important move is not leaning too far into it; while there are some typical
Spielbergian moments, swelled to import by John Williams’s rousing score, this
isn’t a mawkish sizzle reel for your consideration.
If anything, this is just Spielberg doing what he does best: telling tight,
engaging stories; in fact, you can see him honing those same old suspense skills
from early in his career since the whole movie is essentially a race against
time, with Lincoln manipulating both the Confederacy’s negotiated surrender and
the Thirteenth Amendment. The climax centered around the House’s vote for the
measure’s passage is truly riveting, edge-of-your seat stuff; never mind that
the outcome is obvious to anyone with a working knowledge of American
history--it simply doesn’t matter because Spielberg has so masterfully invested
into this world and these characters, particularly its ideals and ideas.
Awe and wonder have often guided Spielberg’s career, and they guide “Lincoln” as
well; however, they do so through mature restraint rather than spectacle, as
Spielberg has made one of his most accomplished films. Because it carries a
message that speaks across the ages and to our own current political gridlock,
it’d be easy to regard “Lincoln” cynically; our struggles are simply different
and the parties have switched sides, so it’s hard not to bemoan just how little
things have changed in over a hundred years. However, Spielberg predictably
refuses to deal in cynicism, which makes him the ideal candidate to direct a
film that’s as inspiring and deeply moving as “Lincoln.” His only true misstep
comes at the end, when he unnecessarily clutters things with Lincoln’s death. We
see not quite Lincoln’s assassination but a related event taking place at the
same time. I admire Spielberg’s choice to conclude on a note of indirection and
discretion: Ending on a depiction of the well-known facts of that night at
Ford’s Theatre might have been both dramatically inert and crass. But I think
the film should have ended even earlier, on a long shot (beautifully framed by
cinematographer Janusz Kaminski) of the lanky, stooped president walking alone
down a hall of the White House, on the way to take his wife to the theater on
April 14, 1865, five days after ending the bloodiest war in the nation’s
history. We all know what happened next.
Despite that misstep, "Lincoln" is an engrossing, genuinely entertaining film
that is also an inspiring piece of Americana in the finest sense of the term.