Simply put, Steven Spielberg’s new film Lincoln is amongst the best he’s ever made and is one of the best of the year. It’s an unusual departure for the director, in that this is probably the most verbose work he’s ever done. But by working on a project that is intelligent and mature, he has treated us to an indelible portrait of one of the most omnipresent figures in history. Surprisingly, this isn’t an epic. It is intimate, emotional, and thoroughly engaging.
Based on the well known book Team of Rivals: The Politcal Genius of Abraham Lincoln by noted historian Doris Kearnes Goodwin, the screenplay of Lincoln was adapted by the famous playwright Tony Kushner (of Angels in America fame). With those writers guided by Spielberg, the pedigree on this project couldn’t be higher. The story is about the passage of the 13th amendment to the Constitution. Coming as it did at the tail end of the Civil War, the ratification of an amendment to outlaw slavery was understandably controversial. The President was dealing with a deeply weary and divided nation. While victory for the North was looking assured, the issue of whether or not to pass the amendment was tangled up with the ability to end the war sooner rather than later. Lincoln had to politically maneuver both sides of Congress if he wanted to get it passed, and even some abolitionists were against it if it might cost more soldiers’ lives. Slavery and bloodshed were the high stakes he was dealing with. And navigating the politics of the situation is what this film is about. Rarely has a movie been more intrinsically engaged in the political process itself.
Lincoln has a star-studded cast that keeps it from being a dry history lesson. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes an earnest impression as Lincoln’s passionate son Robert, who is desperate to quit school to join the war effort despite his parents’ misgivings. Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate Vice-President Stephens in just one scene is able to succinctly state what this amendment may cost the nation. Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair is funny and somewhat tragic as he lobbies for the President based on faith in a verbal agreement. James Spader is used to great comedic effect as one of Lincoln’s agents who is working backroom deals to get enough undecided Congressional votes to pass this thing. Jared Harris as General Grant only appears briefly but is able to convey the famous man’s world weary gravitas. There is impeccable supporting work across the board from David Strathairn, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McGill and Lee Pace.
There are two standout supporting players. Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln is surprisingly good. At times in the past, Field has come off as a bit shrill and affected when playing an ultra-serious role (e.g. Not Without My Daughter or Eye of the Beholder). Her performances can be likened to the joke about Robin Williams, where you know if he’s being “dramatic” or not by if he has a beard. But as the First Lady she makes quite an impression. Mary Todd was famously mentally unbalanced. Field shows her to be a woman of deep emotional pain in her private dealings with her husband, but publicly she could still put on her political face. She is particularly funny during a Congressional meet-and-greet where she politely insults some of her guests directly to their faces while still being diplomatic. Meanwhile, Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, who was one of the most stridently outspoken abolitionists in Congress, gives yet another terrific performance. Stevens wants slavery gone all in one fell swoop, and he doesn’t care who he has to offend to get it done. He finds himself at odds with the President and has to make a choice of his own about compromise. Jones shows him to be pig headed yet thoughtful. In the Stevens character, we see a lot of the complexity of what this vote meant.
As for the title role played by Daniel Day-Lewis, not enough praise can be heaped on him. He is one of our greatest film actors, and yet again we see why. As Lincoln, he is soft spoken, tired, worn down by years of the heaviest burden anyone could have: a nation at war with itself. And he often conveys all that while just sitting still. Wisely, Spielberg’s story here focuses on just the last months of Lincoln’s life. So, by the time we see him, Lewis is showing him to be the most complex of people. He often speaks in anecdotes. He likes to make enjoyably corny jokes. He is, in every way, the self-taught farmboy that grew up to lead the country through it’s darkest hour. And the way he is portrayed, he feels very real. You like this guy and when he finally does speak, you want to listen. It brings to mind Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ, in that it takes a huge historical figure and humanizes him while still being respectful. If the Oscars were awarded tomorrow, Lewis would walk away with Best Actor. As it is, he is an instant front runner in that race already. Also, look for Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor nods.
I know, I know. There might be some reading this who say “Oh, another historical flick from the most Hollywood of directors and a bunch of people making stodgy speeches. Yawn.” But no. This is the kind of historical film that is entertaining as well. This is good like Amadeus is good or some of David Lean’s historical films. It’s possible that Spielberg may be trying to live up to one of his idols, John Ford. After War Horse which was heavily influenced by Ford’s movies, he made Lincoln knowing that Ford made Young Mr. Lincoln. But for a recent comparison, some of this feels like the spiritual cousin to Frost/Nixon which turned out to be one of Ron Howard’s best movies. If I had any complaint at all during this film it would be one short 2 second shot where Lincoln’s image appears in a candle flame towards the end that is meant to emphasize his legacy. It’s a bit obvious and was the only time that Spielberg’s tendency towards schmaltz shows up (much like my only complaint with Saving Private Ryan at the end when the old man asks his wife if he lead a good life: a bit of unnecessary sap in an otherwise flawless film). But this shot really is short and is the smallest of nits to pick. There is a reason we often call these particular filmmakers great. Sometimes they remind you why.
Final Grade: A+