In the coming weeks, historians and political pundits will pore over the similarities between the subject of Steven Spielberg’s latest historical epic, Lincoln, and the trials and tribulations that have faced newly re-elected President Barack Obama ad nauseum. Two former lawyers from Illinois. The gift for mellifluous oration and gallows humor. A nation—and Congress—divided. Racial disharmony. The ethically murky steps each man took in stretching the bounds of presidential power for what they felt was the greater good of the nation (for Obama, see: the debt ceiling.
Spielberg, by his own admission, made the admirable decision to schedule the release date after the presidential election to depoliticize the film.
Lincoln also represents the third entry in Spielberg’s slavery triptych, following The Color Purple and Amistad. It is loosely based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, penned by Pulitzer-winning playwright Tony Kushner , who also wrote the screenplay to Spielberg’s last good film, 2005’s Munich, and stars two-time Oscar winner Daniel Day-Lewis as the eponymous Great Emancipator. The movie is one of the best-reviewed of the year and as such, has emerged as an Oscar frontrunner.
But are critics being too kind to Lincoln?
For starters, the name, Lincoln, is a bit misleading. This is not a biopic of the 16th President of the United States. Instead, the film focuses on the backdoor wheeling and dealing that went down in order to push the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlawing slavery through a heavily divided House of Representatives.
It opens in the middle of a battlefield sequence—the only one depicted in the film—but the exhilaration is fleeting. After a battalion of black troops bayonets a few confederate soldiers in slow-mo, the action then cuts to a black Union soldier speaking with President Lincoln about the future of his people and potentially being able to vote “in 100 years.” I personally hate when historical dramas include scenes of character’s accurately predicting their own futures. It always rings false and takes you out of the film. This sort of silly past-meets-present ruminating rears its ugly head again when Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), ponder their respective legacies during a carriage ride toward the end of the film. But this is a mild irritant.
Save a few other exterior shots—a random pan of cannon fire on Wilmington, Lincoln surveying a battlefield on horseback, and a few glances of the Capitol building—Spielberg’s film is a parlor drama, played out in meeting rooms, courthouses, and personal chambers, that could just as easily have been adapted for the Broadway stage. It’s entirely devoid of the visual grandeur that’s established him as one of cinema’s most quixotic filmmakers.
Lincoln, ever the politician, enlists a trio of churlish deputies (John Hawkes, James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson) to purchase Democratic House votes via blackmail or by offering pardons, jobs on the other side of the aisle or, in a few cases, appealing to their humanity. While the Machiavellian wheels are turning, Lincoln himself is tasked with selling the abolition idea to his cabinet, presided over by Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), and striking a deal with Radical Republican Congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to lower his expectations, support the amendment, and get the rest of the Republican Party onboard as well. Spielberg does a splendid job populating his film with an impressive array of character actors, who in turn do a commendable job of making the inherently boring bureaucratic proceedings seem mildly intriguing.
Day-Lewis, who has made a career of propping up inferior material and making it palatable—with the notable exception being the masterpiece, There Will Be Blood—is brilliant here. The actor looks like a mirror image of Lincoln and by all accounts accurately captures his body language, from his upright posture right down to his signature lumbering. His voice is high-pitched, yet wields the power to cut right through a room of telegram operators. But most of all, this Lincoln is a funny ol’ bastard, constantly cutting the tension with humorous anecdotes. Day-Lewis has been given an impossible task—giving life to a now-mythological figure—but he does such a stately job, I’d be surprised if Day-Lewis doesn’t become the first man in history to capture three Academy Awards for Best Actor.
Despite Day-Lewis’s brilliant performance, one of the film’s problems lies in Spielberg’s depiction of the Illinois Railsplitter. Lincoln is completely and utterly infallible, whether he’s restoring order in his cabinet, talking some sense into his hysteric wife, or convincing his eldest son, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, to avoid enlisting in the Union Army. This is messianic hero-worship with Lincoln, by film’s end, dying for our racial and spiritual myopia. While Lincoln was by many accounts a great man—and by some, a pretty thorny fellow—Spielberg’s portrait would’ve been more gripping if good ol’ Honest Abe erred every once in a while.
And, at two-and-a-half-hours, Lincoln drags quite a bit. While the courtroom scenes aren’t as painful as the ones in Amistad—where Anthony Hopkins’s John Quincy Adams pontificated via a string of silly philosophical queries e.g., “What makes a man?”—these proceedings do seem pretty Hollywood-ized, with each and every “purchased” Democrat literally screaming their “YEA” to the high heavens during the final ratification vote. And the Lincoln stretches reality as the n-word is only spewed once or twice during the film’s duration.
Ultimately, Lincoln provides a nice little glimpse into one of the most important events in this nation’s short history—a history lesson, if you will—and features stellar turns by Day-Lewis and Lee Jones, who chews up scenery like a hyper-progressive pit-bull, but could have used far more visual flourish and scope to grant this momentous occasion the cinematic reverence it so strongly deserves.