For a film whose ambitions are as lofty and as responsible to the American historical record as “Lincoln”‘s are, it’s a strangely low-key affair. There are few rambling monologues and self-important speeches, few cries to the rafters and appeals to the masses, and very, very few battle sequences, meaning that a film about the end of the Civil War features about 30 seconds of the Civil War. Playwright Tony Kushner’s script is not measured in tears, but rather, words. And how refreshing that is!
“Lincoln”, too, serves as a potent counter-argument to many of helmer Steven Spielberg’s alleged flaws as a filmmaker — his overt sentimentality, reliance on music to evoke emotion, downplaying of the scripts he’s working with. “Lincoln” often times evokes a minimal stage drama — it’s an exceptionally focused, dialogue-centric historical document. Or at least acts the part damn well. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2005 tome “Team of Rivals” (a non-fiction book so transcendent in popularity, even I read it!), “Lincoln” is thankfully not the life-spanning, unfocused account of the 16th president’s entire life that one would expect. Rather, it’s honed in almost exclusively on January 1865 — not exactly an era everyone immediately knows the significance of, but still a watershed moment for human rights & dignity. And how was this moment accomplished? By bribes, political doublespeak and cynical manipulation.
Let me explain.
The film is about Abraham Lincoln’s (or rather, Daniel Day-Lewis’s, in a masterful portrayal) struggle to push through the 13th Amendment — in other words, to finally outlaw slavery. Lincoln is up against an immensely tight timeline, however. It’s widely understood throughout the House of Representatives that to end slavery is to demolish the Confederacy’s economy, thus ending the war, therefore the Amendment must be passed before the war in order to garner the votes of otherwise racist politicians. Not helping matters is the starkly divided nature of the political landscape (sound familiar?!?), with Lincoln’s more progressive Republican Party meeting strong opposition from the racist, bitter Democratic Party (….not so familiar). In order to snag the necessary 2/3rd’s majority, Lincoln needs around 20 Democratic votes or abstentions.
Here is where all of the bribery and sneakery comes into play, holding a magnifying glass up to the machinations of American politics that films seem to strive so hard to avoid. In “Lincoln” these are not just present, but absolutely necessary to the momentum and meaning of the film. “Lincoln”, both character and film, seem to struggle with the question of whether smaller evils are necessary to conquer a great one. The outcome is obvious to anyone with the most elementary understanding of history, yet Spielberg still conjures considerable suspense over the amendment’s fate.
Upon reflection, I think he accomplishes this through the mouths that spout his dialogue. This is a film reportedly with over 140 speaking parts, all littered with famed actors absolutely chewing through whatever parts they have. Littering “Lincoln”‘s impressively recreated sets are the likes of Sally Field, Michael Stuhlbarg, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Lee Pace, James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Jackie Earle Haley, Jared Harris, Joseph-Gordon Levitt and Tommy Lee Jones. While listing their distinct qualities wouldn’t be terribly succinct (mind you, nor is my inclusion of their list), the assembly of these thespians is an utter joy to see, especially considering the passionate clashes that Kushner writes for them. This film is both the finest acting ensemble of the year and one of its most towering individual performances in Day-Lewis’s Lincoln — and the fact that these complement rather than distract from each other is a miracle.
The fact that “Lincoln” seems best designed for the stage, rather than the cinema marks an impressive maturation for our ever-evolving 66-year-old auteur in Spielberg. His presence is certainly felt here less than any of his work in years. But really, when you have one of the greatest actors of our time playing one of the greatest presidents of our time, it’s impossible not to feel just a little reverent. Day-Lewis completely trumps expectations, and not by bellowing across rooms or employing thick accents, but rather by employing a mildly shrill, surprisingly calm tone of voice. It deeply humanizes a man our culture has sort of accepted as legend, and while his flaws are certainly ignored, it’s only because his uncanny political instincts are too busy being displayed for 150 minutes.
Many great works of art dive into the darker side of humanity, exploring our warped psyches, our tendencies for violence, our blatant self-importance. Yet all the same, sometimes it’s all too refreshing to see a film about good people doing good things. By offering a simple window into a pivotal month towards the end of Abraham Lincoln’s life, this is a work that pulls a figure of magnanimous reputation down to our level, daring us to see what makes him tick. I adore Lincoln, and I adore “Lincoln”. B+