By Linc Leifeste | November 15, 2012
Director: Stephen Spielberg
Writer: Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrock, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Tim Blake Nelson, Jared Harris, Lee Pace, Peter McRobbie, Gulliver McGrath
Judging from the title of Stephen Spielberg’s latest myth-making masterpiece, Lincoln, one would think this is a biopic of the man instead of a relatively concise look at the last few months of Lincoln’s life and his role in bringing an end the Civil War while passing the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery. Supposedly Tony Kushner’s screenplay is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s historic tome, Team of Rivals, but if so it thankfully only scratches the surface. When bringing together three giants such as Lincoln, Spielberg and Day-Lewis, brevity is the better part of valor. And even more important, despite the occasional moments of typical Spielbergian sentimentality with the obligatory accompanying overwrought John Williams score, is Spielberg’s obvious restraint. Yes, there is a sepia-toned glow to the whole affair but Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is humanity-soaked and well served by Spielberg’s choice to focus on a complex legislative battle and familial struggles.
Opening with an extremely brutal but thankfully short intimate combat scene, followed closely by Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) visiting Union soldiers in the field, the film gets off to an inauspicious beginning for those hoping to see something closer in spirit to the lean darkness of There Will Be Blood than the Hallmark emotion of Amistad. A saintly-lit Lincoln is visited by conspicuously balanced pairs of soldiers, one black and one white, whose pedantic patter includes quoting the Gettysburg address back to its author word for word. Yes, it’s as painful as it sounds and had me believing that my worst Spielbergian nightmares were being realized. But thankfully, first impressions are not always accurate.
Luckily, Spielberg moves rapidly to the heart of the film with its focus on Lincoln’s uphill battle to achieve passage of the 13th Amendment, and the difficulty of choosing between seeking peace first (clandestinely bargaining with Confederate leadership) or passage of the Amendment first (the passage of which would greatly reduce the administration’s bargaining power with their Confederate counterparts). Aided by Secretary of State William Seward (David Straithairn) and a team of secret operatives (James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson) charged with influencing (buying) votes, Lincoln ingeniously works every angle in his pursuit of passage. As timely as ever in this era of partisan intransigence, it’s a joy to watch Lincoln work his “magic.” Of course, in reality, Lincoln was neither a magician nor a God, although the film and its modern vision of Lincoln at times strays dangerously close to hagiography.
What ultimately allows the film to rise above this is Day-Lewis’ eminently human portrayal of Lincoln. From images of him as a doting father to an emotionally exhausted husband, shuffling shawled and barefoot down the halls of the White House, this Lincoln is equal parts steel-willed genius and vulnerable tragedy. Ultimately, more than all the Congressional wheeling and dealing, it is Lincoln’s interaction with his family that most captures life in all its messy details. Mary Todd (Sally Field) is legendary for her emotional problems (mental illness), brought on or exacerbated by the early deaths of two of their four children (Willie’s during Lincoln’s presidency) and Field does a magnificent job of portraying her as a tortured yet sympathetic character. Their oldest son, Robert, is of an age that embarrassment for not serving in the Union military is setting in but for Mary Todd, his enlistment is not an option. Caught in the middle of all of this is Abraham, in the midst of trying to preside over his country’s most troubled days, for whom even behind closed doors there is no rest for the weary.