Dir. Steven Spielberg
Despite the weighty heft of the film’s title, I’m happy to report this isn’t some glossed-over Hollywood bio-pic with shots of a heroic president scanning a raw battlefield with swelling music behind him and a slow tear trailing down his cheek. Thankfully, Steven Spielberg, working from a fine script by Tony Kushner instead focus on President Lincoln’s struggle to ratify the 13th Amendment — freeing all the slaves — while simultaneously trying to broker piece with the mostly beaten down Confederacy. It’s not so much about Lincoln the man, in other words, then it is about his legacy and the reactionary force of his essence.
I suspect the genius behind this move has less to do with Mr. Spielberg, who has never been one to shy away from high-gloss schmaltz, and more with the estimable Kushner. What transpires, then, isn’t a simple, endearing portrait of a national hero, but a testament to the titanic battle on Capital Hill to abolish this country’s single biggest shame.
As the film opens, in a nightmarish swamp of a bloody battlefield, bodies littering the frame like heaps of floundering shrimp in the bottom of a net, we first meet President Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) as he’s sitting down and meeting with some of the troops. Filmed from behind before we get to see his face (a trick Spielberg stole from his own vast oeuvre: Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Arc), Lincoln is finally shown with a generous dollop of key light, creating a faint aura around him.
The war is coming to a close, we are told, but this puts the President and his Secretary of State (David Strathairn) in a bit of a predicament. Without the threat of the Amendment, the South will not capitulate; but if the war ends before the Amendment passes, Lincoln and his Republican (!) allies will lose any opportunity to pass it. Assuming their party will all vote to ratify, Lincoln and his advisers have to find a way to cajole twenty votes from the Democrats — staunchly opposed to such a passage, I’m afraid — while keeping these peace talks on the total DL.
Forthwith, a triad of savvy negotiators (among them a wonderful James Spader) are sent out to try and swing as many voters as they can, while at the same time Lincoln sets the stage for what will become the South’s unconditional surrender. Beset from all sides, Lincoln remains remarkably calm and good-humored. Prone to perfectly timed jokes and richly metaphoric stories adapted from his past, the President manages to keep a brave face to everyone, including his wife (Sally Field), even as they both still grieve the death of one of their sons, and fear for the life of another one (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), as he demands to enter into the bloody fray for the Union.
As you might be able to have ascertained from the brief mention of but a minor few of the characters involved, where Spielberg has seemed to pull out all the stops is with a cast fairly bubbling with fame and notoriety. No stone has remained unturned, it would seem, for recognizable actors in almost every frame (such is the nature of this overkill that even a nearly inconsequential role such as that of a telegraph operator is played by Adam Driver of “Girls” fame; two soldiers who very briefly speak with Lincoln near the beginning of the piece are played by Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan, and so on) and, true to Kushner’s epic style, there are a bevy of them. The film has more than 150 speaking parts by my estimation, and that’s not even including the dozens of congress people arguing in the stands. Fortunately, amidst this thespian tumult, the film’s soulful center is expertly helmed by the ever-impressive Day-Lewis, who is as brilliantly natural in the role as he is enigmatic.
Towering over his advisers and constituents (believed to be 6’4″, he instead appears to be close to 7″ in this iteration), Lincoln is a deeply felt man of firm conviction, gentle nature, and wicked humor. But, like many great men before him, there is in his countenance something held very much back and in reserve, something no one else seems to be able to quite touch. Part of his appeal, it’s clear, is the amount he withholds from his adoring public and closest advisers.
Still, given the potential bombastic elements at play, Spielberg, like his titular subject, plays things fairly close to the vest. At his worst in his Big Message films, Spielberg can waiver in his film’s conviction, uncertain that his audience will get the point he’s trying to make unless he beats them down with it, but here he’s content to let the Day-Lewis and his massive cast do most of the heavy lifting, playing Kushner’s scenes with just the right amount of gravity and humor. Even the passing of the amendment — a landmark moment of hope and inspiration in our country’s history — is played less like a winning basket in a championship game and more like the significant end of a dirty era, a sigh of relief rather than a victory lap.
If the film plays slightly too long past this moment of triumph — one gets the sense Spielberg simply couldn’t have had a film that didn’t mine any material from Lincoln’s eventual assassination — at least it happens off-camera. Indeed, in making one of the biggest dramatic films of the year, it appears Spielberg has finally learned the value of keeping things small.