Rating: 3½ stars (out of 4)
Lincoln (2012): Dir. Steven Spielberg. Written by: Tony Kushner. Based upon the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and David Strathairn. Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage, and brief strong language. Running time: 150 minutes.
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln begins with the feral ugliness of war—Union and Confederate soldiers lost in a tangle of uniforms, mud, and limbs. This is not the stately, strategic combat we might expect of nineteenth century warfare. No—this is intimate work, the work of bayonets, fists, boots shoving heads into muddy water. It’s a shocking image, and one that sets the tone for the film, in which ugly things are done with the faint hope of protecting human dignity.
Indeed, a great weight hangs over the film, abetted by Spielberg’s and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s decision to focus the movie on the last four months in the sixteenth president’s life. Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Abraham Lincoln with a stateliness and subtlety that may surprise people who still have 2007’s There Will Be Blood on their minds. He rarely speaks above a whisper, and walks with the stature of one carrying an immense burden. He doesn’t overplay the role, opting instead for an understated dignity. His surety of a Best Actor nomination is a done deal at this point.
But those expecting a full-fledged birth-to-death examination of such a legendary figure might look elsewhere. With four months to work with, the film is compact and dense without being too lean. It presents the president with a pivotal dilemma: end the war first, or end slavery first via a new amendment?
Continuing the war means even more lives lost, but missing the chance to end slavery might mean sending black soldiers back to their owners. It’s a desperately difficult choice, and Kushner’s screenplay emphasizes the persuasive arguments of both sides. End the war. End slavery. Can he have both? Or can he only have one or the other?
Ultimately Lincoln decides to play the middle. He sends shady lobbyists to win votes for the amendment, no matter what the cost. (This allows for some oddly jarring passages of bribery and corruption, with a hilarious mustachioed James Spader at the fore). Meanwhile, Lincoln attempts to expedite negotiations with Confederate delegates. As both constructive debate and ad hominem attacks rage in the House, he risks a tricky balancing act in which he must placate or betray each side as the situation demands.
Like Day-Lewis’s performance, Spielberg’s direction has been stripped down, letting the characters and situations breathe, while mostly cutting out excessive sentiment. With his faithful cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg shoots a film that seems drenched in darkness while being perfectly visible. These were dark trials, after all.
Spielberg has also impeccably cast this film. No one feels out of place or ill-suited to their role—from the presence and bravado of Jared Harris’s Ulysses S. Grant, to the brash rhetorical edge of Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stevens, to the passion and instability of Sally Field’s Mary Todd (and Field matches Day-Lewis beat for beat). Unfortunately, with the nature of such an ambitious project, it’s inevitable that some characters feel more like props than people. Even Lincoln seems to exist only in relation to his political problems.
And while we do hear the voices of black men and women, they don’t become a major enough force for a film that focuses on the end of slavery. An earlier draft of the screenplay concentrated on Lincoln’s relationship with Frederick Douglass. One wonders if such a relationship might have offered perspective from a man whom experienced slavery firsthand, and whom served as both a supporter and critic of the mythical Lincoln.
But even as I acknowledge the film’s shortcomings, I’m reminded that I can’t think of the last time such an informative, intelligent, and entertaining biopic graced the silver screen, let alone one about Abraham Lincoln. It might not “wow” necessarily, but it does encourage a quiet and genuine admiration.