(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. It’s about what his whole life was about.
The process of ratifying the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which abolished slavery) required American idealists to be shrewd, practical, cunning, and even ruthless. It wasn’t as simple as preaching their ideals up on soapboxes.
In many ways, despite recognizable aesthetic touches, Lincoln is not a traditional Spielberg film. It doesn’t go for the emotional jugular; if anything, it seems to intentionally avoid it.
A prime example is John Williams’ music. His underscore is often restrained, even absent, as vital monologues are set to melancholic piano rather than heroic brass.
Focusing on the first four months of 1865 (which were to be Abraham Lincoln’s last), this is the most intellectually rigorous depiction of the bill making process that the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon “I’m Just a Bill” simplified. We see how complex and precarious it all is, 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.
This kind of theatrical presentation is intentional, as the hiring of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner declares. The period dialogue is beautiful to listen to, but it’s also occasionally hard to wrap your modern mind around. But even when it is, it’s a level of detail that makes the dramatization of this 19th Century turning point feel credible, not staged.
It also makes the experience more immediate.
It also makes the experience more immediate.
Adapting a section of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s much broader biography “Team Of Rivals”, Kushner writes like a self-disciplined Aaron Sorkin. Kushner applies restraint and humility, he curbs personal biases, and he writes characters as close to being historically accurate as a dramatization can.
He even allows for Lincoln to go the full Sorkin by having the President regale his fair share of stories (just like Sorkin’s President Bartlett). Then, when Kushner’s words are filtered through Spielberg’s cinematic eye, Lincoln becomes the best of live theatre and of the movie theater all in one
This isn’t high drama from a stylistic sense. It’s about the machinations of politics, all set against the backdrop of arguably the most important political undertaking in our nation’s history. It’s about how these things get done on Capitol Hill.
In Lincoln, we see the political sausage being made, and it’s a nasty process. To be successful, you can’t be an ideologue but nor can you simply compromise. There’s an inherent tension in that. Lincoln is about being realistic, not idealistic, yet still finding a way to achieve the ideal.
Lincoln is a film for Civics Geeks. It may, however, test the patience of the average moviegoer.
If that is the case for you, give Lincoln another shot. (Sorry, bad pun. Too soon?) 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 he is an observer. Sure, there’s the occasional grandstanding on the floor of the House (one of my few issues with the movie, and a minor one). Also, the movie can’t resist exchanges between intellectual heavyweights, of which there are several — and when they involve Lincoln, the President inevitably gets the mic drop.
But outside of those moments, Lincoln is much more quiet, contemplative, and patient. Over the film’s first hour, Spielberg and Kushner set a lot of the story’s (and Lincoln’s) chess moves. That may prove tedious to some, especially on initial viewing, but that groundwork really pays off when the results of those moves start coming together in the second half, moves that were very high risk.
Making it even more fascinating: it’s not just about the moves that Lincoln and others make, but it’s how they play them.
That’s primarily done by guesses, hunches, and gambles. For Lincoln’s part, those gambles are made with a keen sense of human nature and a perceptive read of both his allies and opponents.
The story also finds time to explore Lincoln as husband and father. There were many things in tension that Lincoln had to balance, particularly his wife Mary Todd who suffered from some degree of bipolar disorder and deep depression. These tensions and how Lincoln dealt with them further inform him as a President and, simply, as a man.
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. (Meryl Streep may be his only true equal).
Doubly impressive: he achieves that level of naturalism in such a thick period piece.
Often understated and demure, Day-Lewis becomes utterly compelling and authoritative, too, even as he employs a creaky higher-pitch register in his voice 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 13th amendment because of his fidelity to an uncompromising ideal.
You could say he was the Ted Cruz of his day, a man who stuck to his principles in such an ornery fashion that nobody liked him. Stevens’ 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 exactly the scene-stealer you want him to be. He’s downright hilarious, actually. Spader gives 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. That’s politics.
The whole theme is basically summed up by a direct quote from Thaddeus Stevens (and it is a verbatim quote from 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.”
That sentiment isn’t cynical, it’s honest.
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; it almost seems as if the actor struck a deal with Spielberg to let shots play out so that he (not an editor) could truly craft the performance. If Raiders Of The Lost Ark has the most cuts in Spielberg’s filmography (which it might), Lincoln likely has the least.
Spielberg is generous, too, toward Tony Kushner. This screenplay is theatrically-structured, like a play, with scenes and exchanges built just as much for the stage as the screen. (Ex: the first time we see Lincoln is in an exchange with Union soldiers. It feels like the opening to a stage play.)
Spielberg doesn’t ask Kushner to change his sensibility; the director simply captures Kushner’s language-rich theatricality through with his own cinematic lens.
While Lincoln isn’t quite the radical departure that Munich was, Spielberg applies an uncommon simplicity (especially for him), particularly when it comes to camera movement and edit pace.
Through long takes and minimal cuts, Spielberg’s discipline isn’t simply to showcase the performances (although he does) but to showcase the moments. There may be little kinetic energy to the camerawork here, but the images and how they’re framed (and held) remain as stunning as ever.
The film’s various “Oners” aren’t motivated by style or camera choreography. Instead, these long, uncut takes give the actors (Day-Lewis especially) a lengthy theatrical rope. That, in turn, gives us the audience the experience of vibrant, immediate, live theatre — in a way that cinema rarely does.
Spielberg enables us to be in the rooms where it happened.
There are brief scenes of actual Civil War settings, too. Aside from the film’s opening images of brutal carnage between Blue and Gray, however, these scenes are mostly at outposts rather than battle fields.
And yet those brief battle scenes (the opening prologue especially) — 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 somewhere inside Spielberg, waiting to be unleashed. I hope we get it.
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 of seeing our country at its proudest and best legislative moment. Not because it was easy or because it was always done with honor, but because the cause was just and the right person was leading it.
In it, there is also a lesson of what our government is still capable of — and always will be — even in spite of who may be running it.
Lincoln was surrounded by dissenting voices, even within his own cabinet. Some demanded to end the war at any cost, including the continuance of slavery. But even in the face of all that, Lincoln would not be moved. This was the moment. It had to be then. Right then. Or it would slip away.
Seeing Abraham Lincoln maneuver toward that goal is fascinating. Seeing him fight for that will warm the patriotic heart of any American. Appropriately, Lincoln takes a cynical look at how legislation gets done but still makes you feel proud (and hopeful) about this nation’s possibilities.
That is the result of uncommon leadership.
- Daniel Day-Lewis won his third Best Actor Oscar for playing Abraham Lincoln, but it was a role that he initially declined — not just once, but several times over. In a long and gracious letter, Day-Lewis essentially told Spielberg that he couldn’t account for why he felt unqualified to play the part, the man, but simply that he did. Liam Neeson was then cast, but eventually he had to drop out, too. Spielberg went back to Day-Lewis, who declined again. Leonardo DiCaprio, who had worked with Spielberg on Catch Me If You Can and with Day-Lewis in Martin Scorsese‘s Gangs Of New York, heard that Day-Lewis had twice declined the Lincoln role. Wanting to help, DiCaprio personally flew to Ireland where Day-Lewis lived, to help convince Day-Lewis to take the role. It worked. To this day, no one has shared exactly what DiCaprio said or did to pull it off (unless, perhaps, the dramatic gesture was enough).
- 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 held true to that statement, returning five year’s later in 2017’s Phantom Thread, from There Will Be Blood director Pal Thomas Anderson. Day-Lewis has since said that he is now retired for good.
- Sally Field was so determined to play Mary Todd Lincoln that, despite Spielberg’s concerns over her ten year age gape than Day-Lewis, that she begged Spielberg to grant her an actual screen test (something that is never done for established Oscar-winning actors of her caliber). Not only did Spielberg agree to give Field a try, but Day-Lewis was generous enough to fly all the way from Ireland to help give Field her best shot at the screen test. 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 one with the vulgar punchline) was, in truth, a story that Lincoln actually loved to tell.