(for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language)
Released: November 16, 2012
Runtime: 150 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Lee Pace
“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.”
– President Abraham Lincoln
Like its real-life icon, Lincoln is something to admire.
It’s a towering portrait of our most consequential President, at his most consequential moment. It’s not about his whole life but, rather, what his whole life was about.
Of Spielberg’s four “noble” American historical films (including Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, and Bridge Of Spies), this one wears its nobility best. Rather than preaching its ideals up on soapboxes, the process of ratifying the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which abolished slavery) required American idealists to be shrewd, practical, cunning, even ruthless.
In many ways, despite recognizable aesthetic touches, Lincoln is not a traditional Spielberg film. It doesn’t go for the emotional jugular; indeed, it seems to intentionally avoid it (example: John Williams’ music is often restrained, even absent, or underscoring monologues – if at all – with a melancholic piano rather than heroic brass).
Focusing on that four month process (and Abraham Lincoln’s four last) at the beginning of 1865, this is – along with being a study of the man – the most intellectually rigorous version of Schoolhouse Rock’s classic “I’m Just a Bill” that you’re ever likely to see, from the floor of the House of Representatives to Lincoln testing the limits of his Executive Power.
It’s an academic (though still dramatic, and occasionally comical) retelling of Lincoln’s fight to expand equal rights under the law to all citizens. There’s a lot of talking. It’s mostly talking. Like a stage play. It’s intentionally theatrical in its presentation, as the hiring of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner declares. Its period dialogue is at times beautiful to listen to, but also occasionally hard to wrap your modern mind around.
Yet it makes the experience more immediate, and Kushner (adapting a section of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s much broader biography “Team Of Rivals”) writes like a self-disciplined Aaron Sorkin, applying restraint and humility, curbing personal bias, and writing characters as close to being historically accurate as a dramatization can (rather than spinning variations on his own Id). He even allows for Lincoln to tell his fair share of stories (a trait Sorkin infused into his own President Bartlett). When Kushner’s words are filtered through Spielberg’s cinematic eye, Lincoln becomes the best of live theatre and movie theater.
This isn’t high drama from a stylistic sense. It’s about the machinations of politics, albeit set against the backdrop of arguably the most important political undertaking in our nation’s history. Still, it’s about how these things get done. It’s seeing the sausage being made and how, in order to do that, you can’t be an ideologue nor can you merely compromise (in this instance, Lincoln absolutely couldn’t). There’s an inherent tension there. It’s about being realistic, not idealistic, yet finding the practical way to achieve the ideal.
This film for Civics Geeks may test the patience of the average moviegoer, but it works even more effectively a second time around when you have a solid basis for what Spielberg and Kushner are doing here. Spielberg’s not so much being a dramatist as an observer, even if he does occasionally succumb to grandstanding on the House floor (one of my few issues, and a minor one). There’s a lot of exchanges between intellectual heavyweights. Of course, when they involve Lincoln, the President inevitably gets the mic drop.
The first hour – when Lincoln is setting a lot of his chess moves – may be tedious to some (not me, I’m a political/history junkie), but that groundwork pays off when the results of those moves (many of which are very high risk) start coming together in the second half. It’s not just about the moves that Lincoln and others make but how they play them. That’s primarily done by guesses, hunches, and gambles – although for Lincoln’s part those gambles are made with a keen sense of human nature in general and a perceptive read of both allies and opponents in particular. The story also finds time to explore Lincoln as husband and father, further informing him as both President and, simply, as a man, through all of the tensions he was balancing (particularly his wife Mary Todd, who suffered from some degree of bipolar disorder, and deep depression).
The all-star cast is possibly Spielberg’s deepest bench, and yet Daniel Day-Lewis still remains peerless. It’s his showcase, to be sure; a method immersion of transformative power. He has a way of being authentic, spontaneous, and utterly of-the-moment in a way that few contemporaries can (equaled perhaps only by Meryl Streep).
Doubly impressive: achieving that level of naturalism in such a thick period piece. Day-Lewis is understated and demure yet utterly compelling and authoritative, even with employing a creaky higher-pitch register that Lincoln reportedly had. His temperament is quiet, but his conviction and resolve are deep. And though slow to anger, he’ll unleash it when the moment requires.
Tommy Lee Jones is the main supporting standout as Thaddeus Stevens, the anti-slavery ideologue who – despite the rightness of his cause – was in danger of undercutting the amendment because of his fidelity to an uncompromising ideal (sort of the Ted Cruz of his day, Stevens stuck to his principles in such an ornery fashion that nobody liked him). His virtue was his own worst enemy. You watch him with great admiration while also thinking, “Thad, you’re going to mess this whole thing up if you’re not careful.”
The rest of the ensemble is too big to praise in total, but it must be noted that James Spader is the total scene-stealer you want him to be (hilarious, actually), giving a great little character performance as the leader of a trio hired by the administration to, basically, buy votes.
Lincoln is not a movie about doing the right thing with integrity. It’s about doing the right thing by any political means possible. It’s not an “ends justify the means” message but rather one about the complex political necessity to hedge integrity in the micro in order to achieve justice in the macro.
The whole theme is basically summed up by a direct quote from Thaddeus Stevens (and it’s verbatim to the historical record, not scripted): “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America.”
The sentiment isn’t cynical, it’s honest. And it actually reminds me of what St. Paul the Apostle said in Philippians 1:17-18: “The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”
Because of the amendment’s victory, despite some of the means by which it was procured, Thaddeus Stevens – the pious idealist – rejoiced.
In many ways this is Spielberg’s most generous directorial effort, especially toward Day-Lewis as an actor (who towers in all respects, seemingly having struck a deal with Spielberg to let shots play out) but also toward Tony Kushner as a writer and his theatrically-structured screenplay (ex: the first time we see Lincoln, and his exchange with Union soldiers, it feels like the opening to a stage play). If Raiders Of The Lost Ark has the most cuts in Spielberg’s filmography (which it might), Lincoln likely has the least.
Though not quite the radical departure that was Munich, this is Spielberg applying uncommon simplicity, particularly when it comes to camera movement and edit pace, even as many of the images framed and held remaining as stunning as ever. Through long takes and minimal cuts, Spielberg’s discipline isn’t simply to showcase the performances (although he does) but to showcase the moments.
The film’s various “Oners” aren’t motivated by style or camera choreography, but rather to give the actors (Day-Lewis especially) a lengthy theatrical rope. That in turn gives us, the audience, as vibrant and immediate a live theater experience as cinema can provide. Spielberg enables us to be in the rooms where it happens.
There are brief scenes of Civil War settings, too. Mostly at outposts rather than battle fields, although the film’s opening images are a truly brutal carnage of Blue and Gray. That prologue, combined with the most harrowing scenes from Amistad (which were too few), can’t help but suggest that there’s still a full-on Civil War masterpiece rumbling inside Spielberg, waiting to be unleashed. But for now, these images are, in part, reminiscent of Dances With Wolves in the sense that, like that movie, Lincoln’s battlefield locations are shot more like John Ford westerns.
As we see our contemporary politics divide us even further, Lincoln gives us the gift (and lesson) of seeing our country at its best and proudest legislative moment. Not because it was easy or because it was always done with honor, but because the cause was just and the right man was leading it.
In the face of dissenting voices all around – even in his own cabinet – demanding to end the war at any cost (including the continuance of slavery), Lincoln would not be moved. This was the moment. It had to be then. Right then. Or it’d slip away.
Seeing him maneuver toward that goal is fascinating. Seeing him fight for that end will rightly make any American proud. Lincoln takes an appropriately cynical look at how legislation gets done, and yet still makes you feel proud (and hopeful) about this nation’s possibilities. That’s the result of uncommon leadership.
Available to rent through Amazon Instant Video.
- It was an interesting path to Daniel Day-Lewis finally agreeing to take the role (which would bring him his third Best Actor Oscar). He initially declined, telling Spielberg in a long and gracious letter that, essentially, he couldn’t account for why he felt unqualified to play the part, the man, but that he did. Liam Neeson was then cast, but eventually he had to drop out. Spielberg went back to Day-Lewis, who declined again. When Leonardo DiCaprio – Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can star, and Day-Lewis’s co-star in Martin Scorsese‘s Gangs Of New York – heard that Day-Lewis had twice declined, he personally flew to Ireland where Day-Lewis lives to meet with him and convince Daniel to take the role. It worked. To this day, no one has shared exactly how DiCaprio pulled it off.
- After playing the role, Day-Lewis said, “I never, ever felt that depth of love for another human being that I never met.”
- In the brief moment where Lincoln sits alone staring at his watch, the sound is of Lincoln’s actual watch. Spielberg was able to have it recorded, thanks to the Kentucky Historical Society that owns it.
- Daniel Day-Lewis became the first actor from a Steven Spielberg film to win an Academy Award.
- Day-Lewis said that if he did win the Oscar (his third), he would retire from acting for five years. He hasn’t acted since. His next scheduled project is an untitled film from his There Will Be Blood director Paul Thomas Anderson. They will begin shooting almost exactly five years after Lincoln began shooting.
- Sally Field was so determined to play Mary Todd Lincoln, despite Spielberg’s concerns that she’s ten years older than Day-Lewis, that she begged Spielberg to grant her an actual screen test (which is never done for established actors of her caliber). Not only did Spielberg agree to give it a try, but Day-Lewis was generous enough to fly all the way from Ireland to help give Field her best shot. She’s publicly expressed how grateful she remains to Day-Lewis for having done that. (Field gained 25 pounds for the role, too, in order to equal Mary Todd’s physical stature.)
- According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s research (upon who’s book this film is based), the Ethan Allen story that Lincoln tells (with the vulgar punchline) was, in truth, a story that Lincoln actually loved to tell.