Movies about the American Civil War tend to be, you know, war movies. There are plumes of black powder, crane-straining tableaux of the wounded, a world on fire. Movies about Abe Lincoln, too, have their baggage, the requisite stovepipe hats and stentorian recitations of the Second Inaugural. It’s hard for a film to hit all the audience expectations for the period and also have room to do it’s own thing. But damned if Steven Spielberg doesn’t manage it.
Lincoln is more of a 2 ½ hour, 19th century twist on The West Wing than it is either the more verbose civics classmate of Amistad or Saving Private Ryan’s gas-lit younger brother. But worry not – one of the more powerful shots in the film involves Lincoln walking down a hallway and the camera staying put. The movie covers the last four months of Lincoln’s life, consumed by his press to pass the 13th Amendment and constitutionally abolish slavery. While the success of the endeavor is never a mystery, Spielberg smartly keeps the drama centered on the strains of the political process; for if anything can put a forgone conclusion in doubt, it is Congress.
The film’s weight rests both on the metaphorical and literal shoulders of its lead; though visibly stooped by the burden, Lincoln’s true accomplishment is Daniel Day-Lewis’ graceful turn as the engaging, crafty, wry, wary Illinois lawyer who also happened to be our 16th president. Not even Henry Fonda is as Midwestern as Day-Lewis manages here, conveying emotion mostly with his body, and using rich, knotty tall tales to captivate listeners and make his subtle points. His delivery brings out the best in Tony Kushner’s meticulous script, finding a tuneful, whittlin’ and shufflin’ life beneath the marbled myth, which Spielberg commits to visually, often letting shots linger on little domestic articles we would never associate with dead presidents.
The result is that Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a real person, and that person? He’s a player, yo. The film is never more alive than in exploring Lincoln the wily politician. The movie’s interest, much as it acknowledges the important historical ends, is more focused on the manipulation, the virile taunts and insults, and the competing interests waiting to be either marshaled and/or bamboozled by the Great Emancipator.
You come at the King, you best not miss.
The back-alley wheeling and dealing, carried through in the persons of a mustachioed, scenery-chewing James Spader, and associates Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes, does much to lighten the mood and keep the film moving; the comedy of their quest to buy votes, from an almost absurd corps of cable TV actors, allows time and space for Day-Lewis’ statelier moments of reflection or marrow-chilling moments of doubt.
The whole cloth, then, is a rich, convincing political tapestry. The democratic opposition to the amendment, led by Lee Pace, still a dreamboat even befrocked and blatantly racist, are no more demonized than the abolitionists, led by a fiery, desperate Tommy Lee Jones, are beatified; although, Jones gets a few viciously funny beats of his own, two of the film’s more memorable scenes, and probably a Supporting Actor nod. The set design, wigs, and costumes all do a fantastic, detailed job of selling the period, but it is the entire cast’s performance of Kushner’s revealing, rheumy dialog that actually make the world of the film ring true.
Just hold on, even I’m a little distracted by Lee Pace’s dreamy locks.
The photography is elegant and austere, beautiful captured by Spielberg’s longtime DP Janusz Kaminski, who seems incapable of making imagery musty or staid. Spielberg, while still engaged in patriotic melodrama, is much more restrained in his direction, with the result that Lincoln’s few furious outbursts (one taking place during a lightning storm, because obviously) are exactly as breathtaking as they ought to be.
An Extra Shot
I hesitate to give Lincoln a second beer because what it does well, it does great. Day-Lewis’ performance is a feat, as authoritative but decidedly less showy than anything he’s done in recent memory. But the movie does falter at points. The family dynamics that make up the rest of the film do not spark quite as much as the political capering; the father-son conflict with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Robert Todd Lincoln is resolved perfunctorily and he vanishes. The film struggles to find things for Mary Todd Lincoln to do other than to be (crazy) needy. The film also veers offs a little as it nears The End, becoming more historically self-conscious and John Williams’ mournfully stirring score stirring up more noticeably during Important Moments.
Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history, or gorgeously lit silhouette shots.
Given the subject, the filmmakers ought to be forgiven going for broke at the finish, but the fact is that Lincoln tries to have its innovative, narrowed-in focus, and cake on a silver plate of historic scope; those epic moments, particularly the film’s lone combat sequence at the start and the transition into the Second Inaugural, feel out of place. Like screwing up a recital of the Gettysburg Address in grade school, the film’s missteps are few and understandable, but it’s still not perfect.
While not without blemish, the authority of Day-Lewis’ portrayal, the richness of Kushner’s dialog, and Spielberg’s restrained, elegant direction help the film shoulder its many burdens, expectations, and complete absence of vampires. Lincoln, though at its best showing how damned close and mucked up historical inevitabilities can be, is itself a worthy entry into the canon of Hollywood historical movies.
Take a Drink: when an actual speech or saying of Lincoln’s is quoted verbatim.
Take a Drink: when Lincoln’s folksy anecdotes are still hilarious.
Take a Drink: when you find yourself perplexed by a character’s facial hair.
Take a Drink: when the John Williams score comes in over a noticeably Important Moment.
Do a Shot: when Tommy Lee Jones has a bedtime chat.
Finish Your Drink: whenever you figure out that it’s April 14th, 1865.