There’s a bit of an aura that surrounds two different figures involved in the making of the 2012 movie, Lincoln. One of the two is its director, Steven Spielberg, who may possibly end his career as the greatest commercial American film director of all time (depending on how much you like Alfred Hitchcock and whether or not you see Hitch as “commercial”). The other is its lead actor, Daniel Day-Lewis, whose well-publicized, near-psychotic performance methods has lead to some of the most ferocious, spell-binding screen performances of the last two decades. The combination of these two cinematic gods adds up to something of an other-worldly expectation. And add to that, this Abraham Lincoln project has been sitting on Spielberg’s IMDb page for about fifteen years, and you have a cinematic event worthy of a film geek nerdsplosion.
Slated for years to be Spielberg’s collaboration with Liam Neeson as Honest Abe, Neeson finally stepped down after what seemed like an interminable pre-production period. In came Daniel Day-Lewis, whose status as “supreme serious actor” was confirmed only a few years before with his second Oscar for There Will Be Blood. Now – like Day-Lewis usually does with any film work he does – it’s hard to imagine that anybody else could have done this role better. From a script written by Angels In America‘s Tony Kushner, the Abraham Lincoln in this film is wiry and coy, prone to tangential anecdotes that can wear thin occasionally, but always prepared to bring out the full-fleshed authority that comes with being the President of United States. It’s a pretty spectacular creation that Day-Lewis molds with Kushner’s words, and one that saves Lincoln from being another monotonous biopic.
The film takes place shortly after Lincoln has just been re-elected for his second term and the bloody American Civil War is beginning to reach its merciful end. Lincoln’s main platform now that he’s just been granted four more years? Pass a Constitutional Amendment that effectively makes slavery illegal in the United States. It’s a tricky thing to do in this slippery political time, Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) reminds him, because he is trying to negotiate peace with the South. How do you ask peace from the South while also saying that their very livelihood will no longer be legal on their land? Lincoln can see no better time to end the horrid institution of slavery than right now, when the South is at its weakest.
But it’s not like Lincoln can do this on his own, and it is here where Kushner brings an interesting nuance to the Lincoln story. Politics is a business of snakes, and Lincoln has never been said to be above that, but it’s a great help when you’re the smartest snake in the pit – as Lincoln is. He’s not above smoozing toward the more conservative Republicans who are just trying to end the war, even if it comes at the cost of keeping slavery alive. And he’s not above buying votes from lame duck Democrats, by offering them government work after their term inevitably ends. The background work behind the approval of the 13th Amendment (according to this film), was built on a stage of lies and bribery – but does it matter if it means ending slavery?
Not all of Lincoln’s stress comes from his turbulent presidency, but also from his home, where the First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) continues to blame her husband for the death of their first son, Will. Also, his second oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), longs to be a soldier fighting for his country, even though both of his parents have banished him to college so he can avoid the same fate as his older brother. Both of these home distractions pulling at him, even when he must focus on the matter of the warring nation. He must also deal with Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a Radical Republican from Pennsylvania, whose very outspoken zeal about abolition alienates even those in his own party.
Jone’s Stevens is a pretty important aspect of this film, injecting the story with some much-needed energy with Day-Lewis keeping Lincoln consistently wispy and even-keeled. Jones plays Stevens as a sarcastic, abrasive individual who sees nothing good about ending slavery unless it equals total racial equality, and it makes the film imminently more watchable in those few but necessary moments when we must step away from Lincoln to see the on-going progress of the 13th Amendment. I think it’s a pretty fantastic idea that Kushner focused a majority of this film on a single month (January, 1865) to avoid the failures of so many other biopics that are too broad in their focus. And it gives us the opportunity to delve deep into the details of this political process of this historic Amendment – which ends up being a lot less boring than most of us would believe.
As I mentioned very early in this review – and then promptly never brought up since – this film was directed by Steven Spielberg. It’s actually pretty easy to forget his involvement because it does not include all of the usual thrills and charms of most of his films. In a lot of ways, he does a great service by allowing the film’s actors take center stage (of which the cast is abundant and very heralded – casting the likes of John Hawkes and Michael Stuhlbarg in pretty unimportant roles), and not overtaking visually. The film does have a very hammy, pandering feeling to it, as if it would be almost un-American to not see it as incredibly important – which is a trait that I am inherently prejudiced against (like Spielberg’s other most recent film, War Horse). Perhaps that kind of plodding trait infects this film at moments, but it’s a lot easier to tolerate when the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis and Tommy Lee Jones are performing so brilliantly.
I feel like the story behind Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting methods has vaunted him to a place in the actors’ cannon that he may not deserve. I’ve heard people describe him as a “virtuoso”, when the reality is that almost all of his very best performances were made of the same thinly-veiled rage that’s imprisoned by a very stiff lip and a menacing eye (see Gangs of New York, In The Name of the Father, My Left Foot and of course, There Will Be Blood). That being said, his work here is not consumed by bubbling fury, but instead by a homely storyteller’s wit. There’s a reason why Lincoln was one of the most beloved presidents in the US despite a very bloody Civil War, and Day-Lewis shows that here in one of the very best in an already pretty excellent career.
Lincoln is probably a little too long – I can’t really see what Gordon-Levitt’s Robert Lincoln served to the story ultimately, and a lot of time is spent making very small characters focal points of certain scenes. In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter. Movies like this are supposed to be long and tedious in moments, because how else would we know that they’re so important? All kidding aside, Lincoln has that feeling of a movie that’s very important because of it’s cast, crew and years of anticipation that those names bring with it. It more or less lives up to it, even if it’s not a masterpiece, and gives a new view of one of America’s most famous voices. And even in that voice’s tinny, squealish tone (a historical detail I’m glad to see Day-Lewis picked up on), it’s one of the most powerful in the history of this young but great country.
Directed by Steven Spielberg