Today’s cinema adventure: Lincoln, the long-awaited feature by director Steven Spielberg about the efforts of Abraham Lincoln (and his cabinet) to ensure the passage of a constitutional amendment making slavery illegal in the United States. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th American president, with a host of high caliber actors in supporting roles and a screenplay by Angels in America playwright Tony Kushner, it was the culmination of more than ten years of development and production; released in the wake of a divisive election in a polarized nation, its timing has no doubt contributed significantly to the general acclaim it has so far received from both the critics and the public, helping to make it Spielberg’s best-received film in over a decade.
Inspired by and partly based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the film’s plot confines itself to the last four months of Lincoln’s life, when he undertook to force the passage of the 13th Amendment in the House of Representatives before the end of the Civil War. With the opposition party firmly against the proposed law, and his own side sharply divided, it’s a seemingly uphill battle, and his cabinet, staff, and advisors urge him to wait until the start of the new term, when the congressional numbers will be in his favor; but the savvy Lincoln knows that once the war is ended, support for the cause will diminish. Therefore he sets his administration to the task of securing the necessary votes- by whatever political means necessary- to approve the amendment in congress before the window of opportunity is closed. With his attention focused on this objective, he must also cope with pressures in his private life- the ongoing grief over the death of his middle son, his strained relationship with his eldest son Robert, and the emotional fragility and possible mental instability of his wife Mary. These various situations play out against the backdrop of a volatile and still-rustic Washington D.C., where murky back-room deals, political maneuvering, and ethical compromises are clearly seen to have been as much a daily routine as they are in the modern world. It won’t be giving anything away to say that the amendment passes, in the end; but the road to that political victory is a fascinating and enlightening one, and thanks to Spielberg’s masterful direction and Kushner’s highly intelligent script, the journey keeps us as engaged and invested as if we didn’t know where it was taking us. The film ends, predictably enough, with the death of the president on the morning after he is shot at Ford’s Theatre, but it serves more as a tragic coda than as the culmination of the story- which is less about the man himself than it is about the road to what is arguably his greatest achievement.
The fact that Lincoln is an important American film is self-evident (if you’ll pardon the expression). It is the first serious big screen attempt to focus on any part of the great man’s life in over 70 years (since Abe Lincoln in Illinois, a 1940 adaptation of Robert E. Sherwood’s biographical Broadway play of the same name, with Raymond Massey reprising his stage role), and therefore the first film to address the key subject of his abolition of slavery from a post-Civil-Rights-Era perspective; additionally, it focuses on political and social issues with distinct reverberations in the modern U.S., in particular evoking parallels with contemporary congressional partisanship as well as with the currently ongoing struggle towards recognition of equal rights for the gay and lesbian community. The brilliance of Tony Kushner’s screenplay lies in its ability to strike these chords without forcing them on the viewer; he devotes himself entirely to the factual circumstances of his subject, focusing on the historical battle over the passage of abolition and allowing the material to raise present-day associations on its own. He never loses sight of his primary objective, to present a fictionalized representation of historical events, but through the choices he makes about which themes to highlight and which concerns to bring to the forefront, he makes clear the connections between those events and their modern-day counterparts, as well as inviting reflection on the modern state of race relations in America- both how far we’ve come, and how far we have still to go. Likewise, he brings his dramatist’s sense of practical storytelling to the daunting task of painting a portrait of the title character, a towering and near-mythic figure not just in American political history but in the cultural imagination of the entire world; working from contemporaneous accounts of Lincoln, the man, Kushner endeavors to give us a human being instead of a larger-than-life icon, avoiding the temptation to include recreations of famous speeches or historic moments and offering a vision of a man striving to measure up to his role in a larger history of which he is all too aware. We see Lincoln’s confidence, determination, and ethical fiber, but we also see his self-doubt, his insecurity, and his difficulty overcoming the strains on his relationship with his family; if at times he seems idealized, or too good to be true, it is perhaps because our jaded modern sensibilities place his real-life actions outside of our capacity to believe in a man whose motivations seem so noble- but Kushner places strategic curtains over Lincoln’s private feelings, leaving us to speculate whether there is a gap between his personal beliefs and his political convictions, and to ponder his possible struggle to reconcile such differences. In the end, whether idealized or not, the movie’s vision of Lincoln feels like flesh and blood, and if there is any trace of the super-human about him, it lies in his ability to see beyond the personal and short-term needs of the present in order to exert the sheer force of will needed to push the world forward towards a greater ideal.
If Kushner’s vision of Lincoln works- and it does- an equal share of credit must go to the actor whose intimidating task it is to play him. There could be no better choice than Daniel Day-Lewis, unquestionably one of the finest actors of his generation, whose ability to completely immerse himself in a role is legendary and whose unwavering dedication to finding the human truth of a character is the one absolutely necessary quality to personifying Lincoln. With it, he is able to maneuver past the pitfalls inherent in playing such a revered figure, concentrating on the immediacy of each moment and capturing the emotional realities that help us reach across a century and a half to connect with a man who exists for most if us only as an exalted image in our cultural consciousness. Day-Lewis plays Lincoln close to the chest, governing his emotions the way a president must, even in his intimate domestic exchanges, but still letting us see the flickers of true feeling as they rise and fall; he inhabits the character so completely that we cannot help but feel we are watching the man himself, even capturing an uncanny physical resemblance to Lincoln seemingly without the use of elaborate make-up. Perhaps best of all, he avoids the trap of dwelling in the iconic leader’s somber aspects, instead making him a charming and delightful personality, undercutting his seriousness with an obvious fondness for spinning yarns and making jokes- even off-color ones. This trait, well-documented and deliberately written into the film, becomes Day-Lewis’ avenue into finding the lightness and the joy in his character, and allows us to like this national hero as much as we respect him. It is a breathtakingly good performance, so much so that we almost forget it is a performance, and the actor himself disappears into the lifelike authenticity if his creation; rest assured, though, Day-Lewis is there, fully invested in yet another consummate performance that is fully worthy of the subject he portrays and making himself a strong contender for a record-breaking third Oscar for Best Leading Actor.
Though the film belongs (as it should) squarely to its star, the ensemble cast provides uniformly excellent support; every player breathes absolute life into his or her role, no matter how small, giving the entire film an authenticity as rich as the one provided by the performance at its center, and all deserve equal praise- but there are, of course, a few standouts. Most obviously, by virtue of placement, is Sally Field, another consummate and fiercely honest performer, who is no less fully invested than her co-star, as Mary Todd Lincoln; Field is heartbreakingly real in her portrayal of the high-strung First Lady, still consumed by grief and guilt over the loss of her child, frustrated at the loss of connection in her marriage, and painfully aware- and terrified- of her own precarious mental health. Her scenes with Day-Lewis exude both a desperate tenderness and a palpable ache, heightening the awareness of inevitable tragedy, both past and yet-to-come, that pervades the relationship, but we never get the sense the two have anything less than undying love for each other, no matter what recriminations or conflicts may arise, for better or for worse. The film’s other primary co-star is perhaps more of a surprise; as Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican congressman whose extreme stance on abolition makes him both its greatest champion and its greatest obstacle, Tommy Lee Jones is so eminently watchable he threatens to steal the movie from its star. Bristling with intelligence, humor and passion, armed with a barbed wit and a ready vocabulary, and exuding the masterful, confident presence of a weathered veteran of the political circus, he commands his every scene and catches us unexpectedly at every turn with his thorny blend of effortless bravado and deft understatement; it is Jones, ultimately, that provides the true heart of the film, giving contemporary audiences an access point through his character’s sensibly modern moral viewpoint- which permits him to give voice to some of the movie’s most satisfying dialogue- and thereby bringing home its most emotionally resonant moments through the personal identification we make with him. It’s a sublime performance, every bit as impressive in its way as Day-Lewis’ work, and proof once more that this solid, likable actor deserves perhaps more recognition than he has traditionally received- Academy Award notwithstanding.
There are others: David Strathairn as Lincoln’s Secretary of State- and close friend- William Seward, James Spader as rough-edged proto-lobbyist William Bilbo, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Lincoln, Lee Pace as flamboyant pro-slavery Congressman Fernando Wood, Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate Vice President- and peace emissary- Alexander Stevens, Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant, and a fine child performance by Gulliver McGrath as the precocious 12-year-old Tad Lincoln. The list goes on and on, but special mention should be reserved for the great Hal Holbrook (who won an Emmy for playing Lincoln himself, back in the ’70s), adding his own particular brand of dignity to the role of Francis Preston Blair, an elderly and influential statesman- one of the founders of the Republican Party- who agrees to help Lincoln by endorsing the amendment in exchange for being allowed to attempt the brokering of a peace deal with the Confederacy.
Aside from its stellar cast, Lincoln benefits from all the blessings that come with being a first-string prestige project. The period costumes and sets are exquisitely executed, with the patina of genuine, lived-in use that makes every frame look like a real historical photo from 1865. This effect is aided by the extensive use of location shooting in several key areas of Virginia, where many historical buildings have been preserved and maintained, and by the muted tones achieved by cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, a long-time Spielberg collaborator; watching the film, one can almost smell the mustiness and imbedded cigar smoke pervading the air. Another familiar Spielberg associate, veteran composer John Williams, provides an appropriately majestic Copland-esque score which conjures an aura of deep-rooted Americana, adding to the sense that we are watching a definitive vision of this chapter of national history. In short, Lincoln is an example of top-notch, A-list production, containing all the exemplary elements necessary to make a fine film, contributed by seasoned professionals and awaiting the sure hand of a master director to assemble them into a finished product.
That director, of course, is Steven Spielberg, the one-time wunderkind who is now one of the most powerful and influential filmmakers in the industry, the head of his own entertainment empire, and perhaps the most publicly recognizable face of the Hollywood establishment to which he once seemed to represent the fresh alternative. He has earned that place, without question, with several genuine classics under his belt, from the career-and-genre-defining visceral thrills of Jaws to the iconic adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark to the haunting humanity of Schindler’s List. No one would deny his supreme gift as a technical filmmaker; he has molded the textbook styles of influences like Ford, Lean and Kurosawa together with the up-to-the-minute edgy techniques of modern cinema to create his own distinctive brand of visual storytelling, and his best work stands with that of the masters from whom he has drawn so much inspiration. However, since his 1982 sci-fi/family film mash-up, E.T., The Extraterrestrial,” there have been many critics and audiences that have noted a tendency towards heavy-handed sentimentality in his work, not to mention a penchant for shaping his films around a personal, socio-political agenda. To be sure, using cinematic trickery to manipulate an audience’s hearts and minds is nothing to be criticized- after all, it is the foundation upon which the art form is based- but it’s a delicate process, and when handled without careful restraint the results can be characterized as disingenuous at best, and as outright propaganda at their worst. It can’t be denied that Spielberg sometimes gives in to the urge to turn the dial one notch too high in his effort to make an emotional point in his films, and from time to time his methods could be described as “a sledgehammer approach.” Even his best films have been occasionally marred by this quality, though in his earlier work, admittedly, it is a tactic that served him well; in his more “serious” projects, however, it has the effect, for some, of undermining the feeling of sincerity. Such a criticism is a matter of taste, of course, but with only a few exceptions, it applies to most of Spielberg’s post-1982 work.
Lincoln, happily, is one of those exceptions. As if the deep integrity of his subject demanded the use of restraint, Spielberg pulls back on the emotional throttle, allowing the honest power of the script and the actors to take us where he wants us to go, and using his considerable skills to reinforce rather than to assert. He fills the screen with a rich display of light and shadow, contrasting the somber weight of the 19th-Century environment with delicate and luminous infusions of sunshine and candlelight, using the windows with their lacy curtains to great advantage during interior scenes which evoke the powerful silent film images of such directors as Murnau and Griffith. There are a minimum of scenes depicting the brutal horrors of the Civil War, but these brief episodes are more than sufficient to convey the nightmare that raged beneath Lincoln’s fatal presidency, constructed with the same unflinching, terrifying realism with which the director filled his WWII drama, Saving Private Ryan; and though the majority of the story unfolds through dialogue, he creates a sense of action throughout with his constantly mobile camera, and- with the help of editor Michael Kahn, yet another frequent collaborator- he keeps a tight pace which drives the movie forward and makes it feel shorter than its two-and-a-half-hour running time. Most cinematic of all, he conveys volumes of subtext and a wealth of vital plot information through his masterful visual sense, composing eloquent shots and creating powerful montages that fill in the blanks without the need for gratuitous exposition or unwieldy language. There are a few- just a few- moments when the “Spielberg touch” threatens to emerge; but for the most part, Lincoln is the work of a mature and self-assured director with nothing to prove- a subtle, layered, and thoughtful meditation on history, politics, and morality that never insults its audience by forcing a perspective.
There are those, undoubtedly, that will object to Lincoln for reasons of their own- personal politics, a revisionist view of history, an iconoclastic desire to deconstruct this mythic hero and expose his less attractive qualities. If you are looking for a film that treats Abe Lincoln as anything less than a national saint, you will not find it in Spielberg’s opus. Such a film might well have its place, and personally, I would be very interested in seeing it, but Lincoln, ultimately, is as respectful a portrait of the man as you are likely to find, despite its concerted- and largely successful- effort to humanize him. This does not, however, mean it is somehow sugar-coated, or less than truthful; nor is it one of those “Important” Hollywood epics that reeks of smug self-satisfaction in its pious pretentiousness. I must confess, this latter quality is what I fully expected, though I also anticipated a transcendent performance from Daniel Day-Lewis; instead, I got the pleasant surprise of experiencing a piece of elegant filmmaking that is as honest and heartfelt as it is significant- a rarity in today’s high-stakes movie industry, to say the least. Though it may not be the greatest film ever made about American history, or even be Spielberg’s greatest film, it is a far better film than most people likely expected it to be; more importantly, it offers a cultural touchstone, a sort of celluloid monument at which we may pause to reflect upon our national identity- to which this president certainly contributed an enormous share in shaping- and connect with each other through its portrayal of a man whose achievements stand to validate our belief in the very best qualities within us all.