Lincoln has the potential of going down as one of the great anomalies in Steven Spielberg’s career. While the marketing surrounding this abbreviated adaptation of Doris Kearn Goodwin’s Team of Rivals would have you expect one of the Beard’s patented David Lean-scale wartime epics, marinated in treacle and sentimentality, the reality gives something notably less typical of the War Horse and Saving Private Ryan director: a talky, distanced, performance-heavy wonk-fest, romanticizing not so much the lore of American history, but the bitter ironies of politicking our civic principles in the hopes of salvaging them. It’s a thoroughly refreshing change of pace for an established filmmaker whose trades in earnest yet populist cinema – one I’m not sure many realized was within his wheelhouse. But really, we all should have known better.
It helps that the script at Spielberg’s disposal comes from scribe Tony Kushner, whose work chronically relishes the shortcomings of ideology in light of reality. Kushner’s thematic obsessions are aptly suited to Lincoln, which centers around the revered sixteenth president and his administration’s struggle to obtain passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, by whatever means necessary. Honest Abe (Daniel Day-Lewis), carrying with him enviable political capital from a decisive wartime reelection, opts to spend it on the toxic process of amending the Constitution essentially to end slavery. This choice comes to the immense displeasure of the President’s closest confidantes both in and out of the workplace. His Secretary of State William Seward (David Straithairn), alongside his numerous colleagues in the Lincoln cabinet, questions the tactical value in making the Amendment his pet project when surrender by the Confederate States is all but a certainty. His own wife Mary (Sally Field), still devastated by the death of their son William, begs him to rethink not expediting an end to the War, given the tenacity of their eldest child Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in enlisting with the Union Army.
President Lincoln nonetheless makes juggling both the Amendment and victory over a long and horrific war his administration’s policy, courting everybody he needs to pass his Amendment. We follow Lincoln as he pleads with establishment Republican leaders like party founder Francis Blair (Hal Holbrook) to lend him institutional support, and we follow him as he attempts to curb the radical idealism of abolitionist Republicans like Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). Behind a set of curtains to which even his most intimate political allies get no visibility, Lincoln covertly employs a band of lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) to twist the arms of several moderate congressman to secure a vote on the Amendment in their favor, including even an “aye” pledge from a Democrat or two.
If seeing the most beloved of American leaders resorting to back-door conniving and politically expedient compromises to see his signature accomplishments come to fruition smacks with even the faintest hint of bittersweetness, then Spielberg’s film will have done its job. A far cry from the stodgy, awards-baiting hagiography it could have been, Lincoln not a biopic, but an iconoclastic reminder of a nation’s inclination to step inevitably – albeit reluctantly and glacially – toward justice. Less obviously, the picture also serves as an ironic exploration of how the power to enact such justice often gets wielded by the hands of the powerful elite, stagnated by conflicting agendas and general pettiness. Such is the beauty and the hypocrisy of using representative democracy to negotiate liberties for all, and way Spielberg elicits this sentiment – by compacting astronomical stakes into the incongruously proportioned confines of dimly lit office rooms and rowdy lawmakers’ chambers – demonstrates uncommon deftness for a director accustomed to wear each of his films’ emotions on his sleeve.
The grandeur of Lincoln’s central performances breathe a sense of life and urgency into those astronomical stakes. Tommy Lee Jones, whose Rep. Stevens is asked to mitigate his abolitionism to ensure at least marginal progress for his life’s work, conveys the disappointment and resignation inherent to compromising one’s convictions. He does so, as when he reluctantly weasles his way through an incredulous argument that the Amendment’s passage would not imply that races might be considered equal demonstrates, with scene-stealing bravado and slickness. Straithairn, whose equally resigned yet far less flashy turn as Secretary of State Seward will likely go unappreciated this awards season, superbly blurs the line between ally and adversary-of-sorts as he fulfills his duty of working for the more inexperienced man who was once his greatest political rival. And while Mary Todd Lincoln is intended here primarily as an apparatus to depict the familial strife and emotional undercurrent of Lincoln, Sally Field brings genuine power as a First Lady at once petrified by the death that war promises, yet steadfast in her capacity as the President’s most invaluable political advocate. Her electrifying verbal row with Rep. Stevens, who was always vocal in his criticisms of her husband’s moderate Republicanism, is a master class of lobbing insults disguised as pleasantries
Finally we have Day-Lewis himself, whose role as Lincoln is approached with the level of unmatchable immersion and intensity that is practically expected of him these days. Even if Spielberg (wisely) places a somewhat distanced gaze on the President – similarly to how he filmed Liam Neeson’s tacit motivations in Schindler’s List – a sense is given that Day-Lewis comports a thorough and complex understanding of the character he is playing. Simultaneously encumbered by circumstances beyond his control yet prepared to defy the notion of safe politics to achieve something grander, the Abraham of Lincoln occasionally gives a slight inkling into what he is thinking and feeling, but never quite enough to give an overt picture of the man. He becomes a beguiling presence, both to his peers and to the viewer. As played by the My Left Foot actor, the sixteenth president is at once undeniably iconic, truly human, and somewhat inscrutable.
The duty of portraying Lincoln’s inscrutability isn’t owned solely by Day-Lewis; Kushner’s script knows precisely what information to share, and Spielberg’s claustrophobic, fly-on-the-wall approach to history gives a voyeuristic approach to this insular political world, if not a fully immersive one. That will surely leave many feeling cold toward the movie, but considering how Lincoln sees itself more as part of an ongoing civic dialog than as a historical epic, the approach seems quite appropriate and well-conceived.
While Spielberg mostly shows restraint, there are isolated moments wherein he cannot resist breaking away from the very narrative constrictions he sets up so well. It’s almost as if he does not trust his movie – the most anti-cinematic he’s ever done – to hold the audience’s attention throughout. So he grants us occasional recesses from the dank chambers of Capitol Hill, allowing for some crucial dialog to take place outdoors, in the lovely milieu of nature. It’s a jarring change of setting when it happens, as its function seems to be about breaking up a monotony to the director’s visuals that is not actually there. Spielberg also feels the need to bookend his film with a stilted prologue and a thoroughly unnecessary coda, both of which merely serve to indulge the viewer’s perception of the romanticized Lincoln we learned about in the textbooks. Considering how Lincoln is neither a romanticized biography nor a stiff history lesson, these choices seem wrong-headed on Spielberg’s part.
But these indulgences are sporadic and easily forgiven; they only faintly obscure Spielberg’s deeply impressive and beautifully acted vision. Lincoln is a film to which biographical motion pictures should aspire; not because of its historical accuracy (or, depending on who you ask, its lack thereof), not because the actors look the part, but because it manages to reflect on a distant epoch of profound consequence to many, and to craft a work of intelligence, of freshness and – most importantly – of meaning. As much as Spielberg tells the story of a time long passed, he is also telling the story of our own times. He speaks of how a collective citizenry – represented by a disproportionate few – sputtered and clunked to achieve not justice, but marginally less injustice, and continues to do so today in a manner venomous to idealism. It’s a glorious, ugly truth to our democracy, one that probably needs to remembered now more than ever.
Bottom Line: Far more than a treacly ode to America’s most beloved president, Lincoln is a witty, insightful and thoroughly engrossing tribute to the feats and follies of an American democracy.