Spielberg's 'Lincoln' is the schoolbook president, but it's the story we want, and a tribute to his greatest work
This week more than most, the nation-building history suffusing Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s solid if somewhat immobile monument to its subject, and to that subject's greatest work, shines forward, like one of the angel beams of light that criss-cross the film, a two-lane passage upon which the present and the past speed to inform each other.
For this alone it might be worth a look, and indeed in its duller moments Lincoln is best recommended as a stately reflecting pool. Considering the grandness of the subject, the grandiloquence of the director, and the shackles of the form, this is no surprise. More unexpected is that Lincoln manages to get free of those shackles, briefly and incompletely, perhaps, but well enough to make its story new.
In late 1864, when the film opens, the United States, divided by a civil war for almost four years, has just re-elected the Republican from Kentucky as its president. Lincoln begins and ends with carnage, setting the talky, political procedural that passes in between into primal relief.
Or maybe it’s not quite so stark: following a savage opening battle sequence, we meet Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis, stretched and stovepiped to iconic perfection) on a quiet battlefield, being serenaded by awestruck Union soldiers who know the Gettysburg address by heart; Lincoln’s own violent death is post-scripted by his second inaugural speech. Before moving into the mahogany interiors where political strategy and constitutional law are parsed in loving detail, Spielberg connects us more viscerally to the power of words to create and destroy.
The soldiers’ recital contributes to the must of historical theater that permeates the first half hour of Lincoln. Curtain rustling seems to accompany every entry and exit as a series of mutton-chopped figures (including David Strathairn as William Seward, Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, and James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson as a trio of lobbyists for hire) clomp to their marks and declare their part in the story, and self-solemnity muffles dutifully executed, expository beats.
There is also the matter of acclimating to the spectacle of Daniel Day-Lewis once more assuming the bone structure and breath patterns of an American epitome. Either way, there are plenty of distractions from the intricacies of Tony Kushner’s script (drawn from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 history Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Lincoln), which traces the passage of the 13th amendment—and the abolition of slavery—through its slick and sticky permutations.
Spielberg seems to understand the odds on our ability as an audience to get past a spellbound inspection of Day-Lewis’s performance to accept his Lincoln as a man. It’s a known risk of depicting a character famously cast in Georgia marble. It’s a very good try: this Lincoln is gnomic, ironical, a storyteller who inspires affectionate exasperation to tactical advantage and keeps his cunning close to the vest. From the voice to the bruised eyes, narrow, knock-kneed gait, and gentle manner and barely suppressed melancholy, Day-Lewis’s Lincoln burns with a thin, high flame. The fanatical physical detail risks effecting the opposite of what it intends—our immersion in the “real” Lincoln. But if we never get lost in the performance we certainly swear to it, and by swearing to it enforce a larger self-drama, one whose tensions Spielberg explores throughout Lincoln, balancing ritual enactments and guided peeks under the top hat, narrative constriction and character’s swirling gyre.
It makes sense, then, that when Lincoln is off-screen we can breathe, and Lincoln becomes a looser, more engaging affair. Even John Williams’ score flips from somber chord progressions to antic fiddling when Spielberg follows the lobbyists out into the field, where they attempt to secure votes from frightened Democrats. Spader in particular and as usual is a divine lout, and Jackie Earle Haley slithers hypnotically by as a confederate attaché summoned to Washington as part of a tricky plot for peace.
Best of all is Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican driven by moral furor to make racial equality the law of the land, a howling embodiment of the conscience that Lincoln is either less willing or less able to share. (Though Stevens calls him “the purest man in America,” Lincoln is characterized as a pragmatic moralist rather than too good for politics.) Where Lincoln never puts a word wrong, Stevens has a Biden-like contempt for his opponents and a colorful way of expressing it. He’s the unhappy warrior, and with that wig who could blame him? Spielberg is inspired to classic heights by the Senate meeting in which Stevens, at Lincoln’s request, softens his stance in order to make something happen. The result, as Stevens later calls it in a tender but slightly contrived moment, is “the greatest bill of the 19th century, passed by corruption, aided and abetted by” that purest of men.
One of Lincoln’s unhappier resonances derives from the proud relief of watching something happen in government. Men bluster and bang on (never more, tellingly and to my wilted amusement, than when it is suggested that the proposed path could lead to suffrage for not just the black man but women) but big decisions eventually get made. And by “eventually” I mean in the span of two weeks. In the frequent debate (or “dee-bate,” as Lincoln apparently pronounced it) scenes especially, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski revert to that blinding, celestial light that seems to pour through all historically important windows, cradling each face with a crescent sun, as though a passing eclipse has revealed the past to a future that sits in darkness.
Despite the determined nuance of Day-Lewis’ performance, Spielberg leans almost helplessly away from subtlety, never more than in the film’s final moments. He gives us the Lincoln of schoolbooks and shiny pennies, but offers as well the contrast of a difficult and solitary man who radiated fatherly ease with everyone but his elder son (played in a small but effective part by Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
In a late, well-turned monologue, Sally Field, whose radiantly troubled Mary Todd Lincoln anchors some of the film’s most critical, deeply felt scenes, wonders what history will make of her and her husband, what will filter through the chatter and into the books. “They’ll say I was crazy and ruined your happiness,” she says ruefully, before insisting that history should look to her—not the purest man in America—to see how things really were. Even now we prefer, need, cherish the story that’s written in light, perhaps more than ever before.