All words: Al Moore
Steven Spielberg’s microbiopic on the 16th president stands a capstone achievement in an incredible career of high-production, big screen accomplishments. If you’re turned off by the previews, please rest assured that they are for a very different movie. Lincoln is good enough for one to forgive Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. When we send the next Voyager into space, Lincoln deserves a spot on the golden record. If you think I’m being hyperbolic or too effusive, you simply haven’t seen it. The only complaints I have are middling, and almost entirely from the perspective of a historical fanboy.
The movie picks up with the Confederacy crumbling; the critical questions of the day revolve around what postbellum America will look like. Lincoln was a tremendously busy working president, with irons in many a fire, so Lincoln narrows the scope of its story to the House battle to pass the thirteenth amendment barring slavery in the United States. In fact, but for some time spent on the First Family’s home life, Thirteen might have been a more apt title. The amendment’s passage provides a dramatic frame around which to hang the traditional biographic elements that might otherwise be boring in stark, isolated one-hundred-forty-five minute presentation.
The mix of political procedural thriller with biopic is potent but volatile. Ultimately, screenwriter Tony Kushner resolves the problem of history-as-spoiler by putting this frame on a foundation of individual people; we, as the audience, know the ultimate result, but only the most well-versed history buff knows the individual House members and how they came to vote. By hanging the drama on the possible defection of specific lame-duck copperheads, Lincoln sets an appropriately Spielbergian hook. The approach is ultimately effective.
In the end, performances drive Lincoln. Daniel Day Lewis cements his credentials as greatest living – and possibly ever – film actor, delivering a soft spoken and genial Commander in Chief. In contrast to his chewy though outstanding delivery in There Will be Blood and Gangs of New York, there is never a sense you’re “watching Daniel Day Lewis do his thing.” He melts seamlessly into the role: you watch Abraham Lincoln in the flesh, in his final months and private crises. Tommy Lee Jones puts in strong work as Representative Thaddeus Stevens; his effort is worthy of the legacy of one of America’s greatest men, a hero decades before his time. The Pennsylvanian’s legendary wit, energy, and razor tongue are served well and naturally.
Personally, General Grant is a favorite of the era, and Jared Harris (Fringe, Mad Men) leaves nothing but screen time to be desired; the insouciance and wit, demons, and character of the man are there if you’re looking for them. David Straithairn does a great turn as Seward, once Lincoln’s bitter rival and ultimately his closest friend. A great deal of this relationship remains unexplored, which is not to say unperformed. Finally, it would be nigh-criminal not to mention Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, a personality nonpareil in the history of First Ladies.
At this point, having spent some two hundred words on one tenth of the billed cast, I feel compelled to register my first (quibbling) complaint. The cast is so large, and so well-assembled (and, one suspects, the project so magnetic) that it distracts at times. As Day-Lewis soliloquizes and ruminates, the theater rapt, one’s temporal lobe rudely interrupts, “Wait, is the signals officer that creepshow from Girls?” (Yes, by the way).
This backhanded compliment aside, there are some legitimate concerns with the near Disney-fication of history. Lincoln paints with broad strokes, a level of impressionism bordering on the mendacious or wishful. The peace democrats – in their entirety – are perhaps unfairly lumped in with those who took up arms for a cause “one of the worst for which a people ever fought”, and the coalition for abolition ranges from “slightly heroic” to “cosmically heroic.” I don’t think most viewers harbor illusions that it was (for example) easy for a black freeman to get a hotel room in Massachusetts, but the movie’s insistence on good-guys/bad-guys dualities robs us of a real look at our shared heritage of blood and fear, as well as a greatness tempered by spastic bouts of mere humanity. In the words of Grant himself, “Like many other stories, it would be very good if it were only true.”
To its credit, the movie (narrowly) manages to avert the Magic Negro trope, despite an opening sequence suggesting we were in for the full Remember the Titans monty. While the movie opens strong – a colored volunteer regiment is drowning and stabbing their erstwhile masters in a cleverly shot melee – the next five minutes of maudlin dialogue had me well and truly worried about how cheesy the next 2 hours were going to be: the very beginning is the movie’s Fredericksburg, its nadir.
All of which is to say, if you show up five minutes late, you’ll miss the movie’s only battle sequence, but also manage to elide its sole major weak point, and perhaps get a bad seat… yet there aren’t any bad seats to Lincoln. The majority of the movie is shot in a stable, straight-ahead fashion and while at times bloody, is rarely violent: A wheelbarrow full of severed legs takes the place of a sprawling, Saving Private Ryan type battle sequence. If anything, Spielberg brings a mere journeyman’s hand to the direction of the movie – while Lincoln is dominated by performance and a compelling if whitewashed narrative, it is a middling exhibit of filmmaking craft. There is little sense of space; it’s almost as if cameras were placed in certain locations because “hey, there’s room over there.” Beyond that, the lighting design is noticeably horrid – assuredly, these were dark times, but I have not read any contemporary accounts making specific mention of a four-month-long solar eclipse. On the other, much larger hand, Spielberg has always been a better storyteller than film-maker, and Lincoln is not a movie that necessarily demands a bold and unpredictable new talent in the medium.
So, there you have it. Lincoln is a triumph and a veritable Himalayan range of career pinnacles for everyone involved. Unless poor lighting – or a marginal beveling of history’s sharp edges – can ruin a movie for you, don’t miss it.