DreamWorks Pictures/Twentieth Century Fox/Reliance Entertainment, 2012
Lincoln comes from the cameras of Steven Spielberg, probably the most influential storyteller in modern cinema, and certainly one of the most vexing. Several of his early pictures—Jaws (1975), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)—deserve their prominent positions in the fantasy-film hall of fame. But when the subjects aren’t pure make-believe, his movies tend to run aground on real-world complexities that flighty imagination can’t handle on its own.
This problem looms largest when Spielberg takes on important historical topics ill-suited to sentimental razzle-dazzle. To perceive the merits of Schindler’s List (1993), you have to overlook the way it reduces Nazis to psychopaths and Holocaust victims to ciphers. Last year’s War Horse turns all of World War I into a flashy melodrama about a boy and his bay. A hokey scene in Saving Private Ryan (1998) pretends that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn’t really all that disabled. And then there’s Munich (2005), about Israeli reprisals against terrorists after the Olympics massacre in 1972. After two and a half hours of knockabout melodrama, the film achieves its heavy-breathing climax in a scene that intercuts a character’s orgasm with flashbacks to the assassinations he’s masterminded. With this infamous montage, Spielbergian history reaches its nadir.
Lincoln is a considerable cut above most of the aforementioned movies. Tony Kushner, who cowrote Munich, based the screenplay of the new biopic partly on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, published in 2005. The movie devotes nearly all its attention to a few days in January 1865—a prudent decision, since Spielberg spins even this brief period into a two-and-a-half-hour saga.
The opening scene gives a glimpse of the Civil War’s chaos and butchery, nodding toward but falling short of the stunning D-Day episode that gives Saving Private Ryan its only moments of greatness. Then the focus turns to politics. Lincoln is racing the clock to obtain Congressional passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, already approved by the Senate but stalled in the House of Representatives, where opinions are polarized. Ending slavery for good, the amendment will moot the real possibility of the Supreme Court overturning the Emancipation Proclamation after the Civil War is over. It’s increasingly clear that the South will soon surrender—a Confederate peace delegation is traveling to Washington even now—and that could ruin Lincoln’s plan if news gets out, since Northern indignation over the war is his most vital tool for persuading House members to vote yea on the amendment no matter what their constituents might think.
Conflict between branches of government and chambers of Congress remains a timely topic—note the terms “polarized” and “House of Representatives” above—and while the story of Lincoln isn’t exactly fresh for today’s audiences, it’s still mighty dramatic. Or it would be, if Kushner had written more pithy conversations and fewer wordy speeches. Instead of taking the succinct Gettysburg Address for a model, Kushner frequently opts for the shaggy-dog storytelling attributed to Lincoln in his casual moments, amiable and avuncular but also long-winded and verbose. Even the gifted Daniel Day-Lewis, an acting wonderworker if ever there was one, has trouble sustaining interest in an interminable joke about a picture of George Washington in a privy. I doubt whether the real Honest Abe could have pulled off such a snoozer without that valuable perk enjoyed by rulers throughout the ages: a captive audience that has to hang on every word whether it wants to or not.
Another miscalculation is Spielberg’s attempt to inject cliffhanger suspense into the House vote that climaxes the picture. Movie theaters are the last places to go if you’re looking for historical truth, so I won’t complain about the inaccuracies in Lincoln, such as the fact that the real-life balloting session was far less clear and orderly than what we see on the screen. But even if you don’t know that the House passed the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, you know that some amendment ended slavery in the Civil War era, and Spielberg’s decision to soup up the voting scene with tantalizing close-ups of anxious faces and slowly filling tally sheets is superfluous and forced.
Day-Lewis is the latest of several commanding—and tall—actors to portray Lincoln in major motion pictures. Walter Huston played him in D.W. Griffith’s eponymous movie in 1930, young Henry Fonda was Young Mr. Lincoln in John Ford’s classic of 1939, and Raymond Massey was Abe Lincoln in Illinois in 1940, to mention just a few. (I’ll leave the recently arrived vampire-hunting Lincoln to lie in his moldy grave.) In contrast with those predecessors, Day-Lewis is brave enough to soft-pedal the character’s most commanding qualities, making him not a godlike hero but an introspective leader with a paradoxically ambiguous personality, at least when he isn’t rambling on about George Washington and privies. Day-Lewis’s performance accords with Lincoln’s well-known depressive tendencies, but Spielberg has never shown much interest in psychology, so the job of projecting the president’s interior life falls entirely to the actor, who accomplishes it with his accustomed ease.
Unlike his star, Spielberg does see Lincoln as a godlike hero, so he imbues the movie with the kind of magical background buzz you find in his fantasy pictures, conjuring up the hagiographical glow that Day-Lewis’s acting intelligently avoids. In cahoots with Janusz Kaminsky, his usual cinematographer, Spielberg enhances the ambience with highlights and auras emanating from no detectible source; when Lincoln dies a tragic death in a boarding house near Ford’s Theatre, the swath of snow-white illumination bathing his body has less to do with American history than with Hollywood schmaltz.
The film’s treatment of race seems similarly artificial at times. Since black people were owned by whites in the South and dominated by whites in the North, abolishing slavery was necessarily a top-down project executed primarily by white politicians and power brokers. Given these realities, Spielberg and Kushner appear to have been somewhat stumped by the question of how to give black people meaningful and self-respecting roles without resorting to obvious tokenism. Their solution was to tack on a few episodes where African-American characters speak up for a moment, then retreat to the background so the real story can proceed. This tactic spawns some patently implausible results, as when a black soldier on a battlefield practically growls at the president about slow progress on civil rights, but it also produces what I find to be the film’s most moving scene, when cantankerous old Thaddeus Stevens, a radical Republican who has just played a key role in getting the Amendment passed, caps off his gratifying day by doing what he always does as evening falls—climbing into bed with his African-American housekeeper, a dignified and intelligent woman with whom he is portrayed as having a warm, loving marriage in all but the legal senses of the word.
My reservations notwithstanding, Lincoln is reasonably engaging for ninety minutes or so, and it should do for the Civil War period what Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust—bring heightened awareness to a generation of young moviegoers. Spielberg has also assembled a fine supporting cast. Outstanding members include Tommy Lee Jones as Stevens, whose game-saving Congressional compromise would be almost unthinkable in American politics today; David Strathairn as William Seward, the Secretary of State in Lincoln’s cabinet; Jackie Earl Haley as Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy and messenger of peace; Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, who outdoes Abe’s quiet melancholy with her own hysterical kind; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as young Robert Lincoln, whose eagerness to join the war brings out his father’s most anguished and imperious emotions. Additional kudos go to Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, and James Spader, who make the most of smaller roles. I’m no fan of the Academy Awards, but I think a best-actor Oscar for Day-Lewis is already a done deal, with Jones and Field just a tad less certain as best supporting players.
In its stuffiest and starchiest moments, Lincoln most resembles Spielberg’s ungainly Amistad (1997), which renders the fact-based story of an 1839 slave rebellion in terms so deadly dull that Spielberg himself eventually admitted he had wrung the life and soul out of a hitherto stirring subject. This time he is rescued by dedicated actors who live up to the lofty standard set by Day-Lewis in the title role. Spielberg may not have been the ideal director for this ambitious biopic, but Lincoln and Day-Lewis are a truly memorable pair.