For years now I’ve heard about Spielberg’s “Lincoln project,” and for years now I have been glad every time he has past it up to move on to some other movie. Why is this you ask?
It is not because of the all-too-chic pastime among cinephiles to disparage the super-director of his just due. In my book, Spielberg is unarguably one of the all time greatest directors in the history of the medium, and this is one of the few arguments in film that I believe can be made on an objective level. My lack of enthusiasm then was caused by what I perceive to be the man’s strengths and weaknesses, for as great as an auteur may be, they all have things they excel at and they all have aspects they struggle with.
In skimming his filmography, delineating between his hits, misses, and in-betweens, it is clear (at least to me) that what Spielberg does best is a kind of sentimental humanism (most akin to the work of Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa). Often ensconced in fantasy settings such as in films like E.T., Jurassic Park, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the Indiana Jones trilogy (I’m still in denial over Crystal Skull), what most often comes through in Spielberg’s work is a joy of people and life, as well as film. Try as he might at times, Spielberg is just not a cynical person. There is too much genuine excitement and energy in the man’s essence to pick up on the subtler nuances of life which are only acquired through the jaded eyes of weary travelers.
Herein lies the problem whenever Spielberg ventures into historical fare. Steven Spielberg is not Stanley Kubrick, he is not David Fincher, he is not Paul Thomas Anderson, and because of this, what we get with a “serious” Spielberg movie is a tableau consisting entirely of two colors: black and white.
In the case of Schindler’s List, this is quite literally true. While I know it is heading into dangerous waters to even critique Schlinder’s List given its noble intentions (and no, I’m not a Nazi-sympathizer), one issue I have with that film is other than graphically illustrating the incomprehensible horrors of the holocaust, there isn’t much more to it. It’s a good film, but the depth of human emotion prevalent in most Spielberg films is replaced by the earnestness of pain and suffering, which from Spielberg, feels more obligatory than genuine. A similar argument can be made for Saving Private Ryan, a film whose strengths lie in its uber-realistic depiction of the hellish ravages of war, but otherwise only amounts to a firm salute and a big sloppy kiss to WWII veterans.
Now I only set this up as a rather long preface in order that I may transport you into my mindset entering the film, which was skeptical to say the least. Spielberg’s inclination towards over-simplifying and over-vernerating did not bode well for his cinematic interpretation of the most deified figure of American history.
Lincoln is the Jesus of American politics. The man could do no wrong in the eyes of the American public, despite, or maybe because of, how little they may know about the man’s actual life. Was there a chance then that Spielberg’s Lincoln would be anything but a cinematic monument in the 16th President’s name? The answer is yes, with some qualification.
Lincoln is probably Spielberg’s most restrained, if not cinematically arresting, historical drama to date. Focusing exclusively on the small segment of the man’s life during the lame-duck session of his first term, in which he sought, over many obstacles, to pass the 13th Amendment (abolishing slavery), Lincoln is a fully fleshed out and accurate portrayal of the man, the president, and the politician, not just the myth. Now don’t be fooled, if you’re a Confederate-flag-waving Southerner, Lincoln is far from the bad guy in the movie, and the film makes its sympathies clear. What the film does do though is accurately depict the somewhat questionable methods Lincoln used to see his will realized.
Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) employs some irreputable vote wranglers from Albany, lead by W.N. Bilbo (in a sharp performance from James Spader) to finagle and incentivize (with job offers) some lame-duck Democrats to vote yes on the amendment. He admits to his cabinet that his liberal take on the “war powers” section of the constitution may be an abuse of power. He knowingly makes the disingenuous argument that the passage of the 13th Amendment will lead to the end of the Civil War, as representatives from the Confederacy press Lincoln for a peace agreement on the express stipulation that the 13th Amendment shall not pass.
Then at the height of the congressional debate over the amendment, just as the vote is about to begin, Lincoln delivers to congress a strictly “legalese” note that would not pass the Pinocchio test of truth, in order that the vote may proceed. All of this is presented as plain as day and it is left to the audience to decide what is justified and what is not, although I think the “end justifies the means” moral of the movie would not have been so favorably presented had the bill at hand been say, the Patriot Act, instead of the 13th Amendment, but that’s for some other discussion.
Besides this terse tell of political wheelings and dealings, expertly paced by Spielberg, that is the center of the film, my favorite parts of the movie were actually the smaller moments that revealed Lincoln, the human being. In particular, Lincoln had a penchant for telling stories, and the film captures this brilliantly. Much to the dismay of the cabinet around him, no matter what the situation, no matter how serious the subject matter, Lincoln always manages to fit in some tangential, non-sequitur parable about history, or someone he knew, or even a simple joke, and it is moments like these that elevate the film beyond historical docu-drama.
Of course, much of this work rests on the shoulders of Daniel Day-Lewis and his performance, and Day-Lewis proves again why he is the Michael Jordan of acting. Unlike most actors in bio-pics who settle for imitation, Day-Lewis inhabits this man, heart and soul. Originally, Liam Neeson was set to play Mr. Lincoln, but with all due respect to Mr. Neeson, thank God this didn’t happen, because no other actor alive could have done what Day-Lewis does in this movie. Lincoln above all, beyond historical figure, is a three-dimensional human being in this film, and how Day-Lewis turned a monument into a person I don’t know, but it should net him his third Oscar.
The rest of the cast does a good job as well, rounding out a solid ensemble. Work from actors such as Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, David Costabile, Michael Stuhlbarg, and particularly David Straithairn, playing Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward, are all superb.
This is why it annoys slightly that all the awards attention is being heaped upon two of the weaker elements of the cast: Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field.
Tommy Lee Jones, playing the Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens, gives the same ornery, insult-throwing, sarcastic, old smart ass performance he always gives, enunciated in the same Texas drawl as always despite the fact Thaddeus Stevens hales from the northern state of Pennsylvania. It fits the movie decently to an extent, but I’ve never seen an actor get as far critically, relying on the same schtick, as Tommy Lee Jones has throughout his career.
Meanwhile, Sally Field, playing Lincoln’s mentally unstable wife, Mary Todd, dives in head first into the histrionics in her portrayal of crazy ol’ Molly. Now I know Mary Todd was supposed to have been a very demanding and emotional person, but I think you could have portrayed this in a more sensible manner than the 1930’s melodrama techniques that Sally Field seems to be employing. Apparently Ms. Field begged and pleaded with Spielberg to let her play the part, and while I’m glad Spielberg appears to be such a nice guy, in this case I wish he had a little more backbone.
Other than these two performances though, my major quibble with Lincoln as a movie comes from elements of the script. Written by previous Spielberg collaborator Tony Kushner, there are a few anachronistic scenes that took me out of what otherwise would have been a brilliant film. As an example, very early on in the film Lincoln visits a battlefield and enters into a conversation with two African-American Union soldiers. While one of the soldiers is honored to meet Lincoln, the other soldier goes on to list all his complaints at the many inequities between white and black soldiers in the Union army.
My issue with this scene is it feels included for the sole purpose of softening the time-warp from the 21st Century back to the Civil War era. While this speech would have fit right in a movie chronicling the Civil Rights Movement, that era was still another century away, so while I could be wrong, it does not feel authentic to the Civil War era. Millennials, who have very little sense or scope of history (I can say that being a Millennial myself and seeing friends’ eyes glaze over whenever historical subjects come up), would probably have a hard time relating to a moral compass so backward and removed from our own, but it is a cheap way out to sacrifice authenticity for accessibility and a few other instances such as this hold the film back from being the coup de grace it might have been.
Lincoln is an engaging, deftly made film chronicling an important part of Abraham Lincoln’s legacy. It also shows the maturation of Steven Spielberg as a director that he is able to tackle this type of material without turning it into a reverential snooze-fest. A few out of place, didactic scenes in Tony Kushner’s screenplay keep me from placing Lincoln in the upper tier of Spielberg’s oeuvre, but it’s a solid effort from the director that will no doubt add to his legacy, just as the 13th Amendment did to Lincoln’s.