Movie Review: Lincoln
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Abraham Lincoln endures in American culture with an unsurpassed gravity. From our currency to our history books to the magnificent monument on the National Mall, the legacy of the 16th president of the United States looms large.
But what of the actual man? Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” attempts to fill out the sketch that history has left us.
Few filmmakers have presented historical narratives on as massive a scale and with as much emotional resonance as Spielberg, the director responsible for “Schindler’s List,” “Amistad” and “Saving Private Ryan.”
When news broke that the Great Manipulator was tackling the story of the Great Emancipator, I braced for an overwrought, effusive and heart-tugging story on a grand scale. But Spielberg shows a considerable amount of restraint in “Lincoln,” choosing a small window of the president’s life to paint an intimate picture of a man bravely leading his country through the darkest moments of its history.
Despite its limited focus, the movie still runs too long and distracts with stilted performances from much of its all-too-recognizable supporting cast. But just as the nation relied on Lincoln in its time of crisis, Spielberg’s film rests on the shoulders of the inimitable Daniel Day-Lewis, who gives a brilliant, lived-in performance of a leader shepherding his unsteady Union.
The movie avoids the battlefield for most of its running time, but that is where it begins. Two Union soldiers — one black and one white — approach the seated president. The camera is behind Day-Lewis, so the audience sees what Lincoln sees: a battlefield rendered in deathly smoky shades of muddled grays and blues, bodies piling up as the Civil War wages on.
In a completely unbelievable scene, the two soldiers recite parts of the Gettysburg Address to the large but gentle man, who treats them with the care and strength of a loving father. Though the scene likely does not come directly from history, it does take care of several bits of exposition for the film: It reminds us what an incredible orator Lincoln was, shows the fatigue the war has caused the president and depicts him as a patriarch as much as commander-in-chief.
The year is 1865, just months before the end of the four-year conflict, and Lincoln is pursuing an amendment to abolish slavery permanently. The film, written by Tony Kushner (who wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s “Munich”), is based on a small segment of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.”
Lincoln sees the winding down of the war as a last opportunity to leverage the South and improve on the Emancipation Proclamation, but he’s facing concerns from his cabinet (that team of rivals), including Secretary of State William H. Seward (David Strathairn), who believe that pushing for the 13th amendment to abolish slavery may be too politically risky.
As he explains his thought process to his cabinet, Lincoln employs the folksy charm and winding anecdotes for which he is famous. The president reckons all he needs is the support of a handful of Democrats to join with the Republican members of Congress in backing the 13th amendment. In order to get those votes, Lincoln calls on three political mercenaries (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) to make covert deals offering political appointments and the like in exchange for their votes.
Though Lincoln shows a measured patience in explaining the necessities of these votes, he is not simply asking that his will be done, he is demanding it. Though he may have been a man of soft-spoken confidence, he was also one of stern will. The legislative jostling makes for an intriguing procedural narrative that history buffs and lovers of “The West Wing” will likely love.
Assisting Lincoln in his vote-whipping is the charismatic Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). Much of the moral implications and complexities of the 13th amendment and how far it could and should go in making slaves completely equal citizens rest in Stevens storyline. Jones brings a stinging sarcasm and melancholic sympathy to the role. Although it can be distracting to see the awkwardly bewigged Jones being Jones, it should be remembered that Stevens apparently was a sharp-tongued, flamboyant character who resembles some of Jones’ more memorable roles.
During the political wrangling, Spielberg’s camera follows the slow-moving president working his way through the dark hallways and chambers of the White House, a place occupied with its own battle. His wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), still mourns the loss of her second-youngest child, Willie, and her overwhelming grief threatens her sanity. Despite her emotional distress, Mary proves herself a good sounding board for the president as he maneuvers the tricky political waters surrounding the passage of the amendment.
Kushner’s script details a complicated marriage bound by grief and forged in the crucible of an all-encompassing war. Having lost Willie, Mary makes it clear to her husband in a stirring scene that she will not abide losing another son. But her wish is threatened by her eager eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who wants to join the Union army despite his parents’ protestations.
While the depiction of the marriage is an interesting look into the personal side of Lincoln’s feelings about the war, the second storyline about Robert feels forced and unnecessary. We already see Lincoln as a loving father in his relationship with his youngest, Tad, and Gordon-Levitt’s brief and sporadic appearances take the audience out of the film.
“Lincoln” is strongest when it takes a steadied look at a president burdened with a horrific war and the amorality of slavery. The president saw the ending of slavery as a moral imperative that affected the fate of mankind. He also knew that the end of the Civil War represented America’s best hope at abolishing the atrocity outright.
Spielberg presents the 16th president as a man of nobility and strength, a singular leader who understood his duty to history and to the Union. He does not make Lincoln a saint, but shows him as a man of humor, a heartbroken father and a disciplined leader unafraid to flex his political muscle when needed.
Given Spielberg’s track record of hitting audiences in the stomach and heart, and the weighty subject matter, one would expect a more profoundly moving film. But “Lincoln” never quite resonates emotionally. The film’s tone wanders at times, from jokey historical re-enactment to ridiculous melodrama (especially in the film’s final, telegraphed scene), and the lensing borders on overly austere. But the center always holds thanks to the nuanced and captivating performance by Day-Lewis, who brings humanity and warmth to a man too often made static by history.