If I told you that Disney was distributing a Steven Spielberg film about Abraham Lincoln, and that that film would star Daniel Day-Lewis, you’d probably have a certain set of expectations as to what that film would be like. From a tonal perspective, Lincoln is very much the film that you’d expect it to be.
The costumes are immaculate, Tony Kushner’s dialogue is filled with the witty turns of phrase that seem to have gone out of the popular idiom in 1960, and the music swells exactly when you’d expect it to during certain speeches. There’s a bit of a PBS vibe to the film, but, fortunately, it manages to avoid being too heavily sanctimonious, mostly thanks to Kushner and Day-Lewis. The only significant difference from what one might expect from this project is in its narrow focus on a specific period of time. Rather than tell the story of Lincoln’s life, the film zeroes in on the period surrounding the attempt to abolish slavery in the United States through the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
Where Lincoln succeeds best is in humanizing the man and in making the political conflict of the time seem relevant to the 21st century. All too often, Americans of this day and age seem to think that the current level of political vitriol and unwillingness to compromise are unique to our time, when that’s been anything but the case. Lincoln details the tightrope that Lincoln was forced to walk every single day. If he wanted to gain the full support of his own party for the Amendment, he had to agree to secret peace negotiations with the Confederacy. However, if word got out that he’d agreed to negotiate, he’d be labeled a liar and opportunist for trying to divide the country further by pushing for legislation that was divisive enough for “free states,” to say nothing of the potential contentious reintegration into the Union of the thousands of people who’d committed to fighting to protect their rights to own slaves.
There’s a tendency to idolize certain events and people long since relegated to the annals of historic heroism, and, insofar as American history is concerned, Abraham Lincoln is probably victim to that more than many. I can still recall the opening line of his entry in the first set of encyclopedias that my parents ever purchased for my sister and I. “Abraham Lincoln is one of the greatest men who has ever lived.” That’s a remarkably subjective statement for a text trying to establish a factual record. I could understand “most important” or “most influential,” but “greatest” implies a value judgment that you’d think has little-to-no place in an encyclopedia. Nevertheless, there it stands.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is masterful. It’s all too easy to forget the actor and simply see . . . him. Given the time he lived in, Lincoln is not someone whom we’ve watched on television for years, as is the case with contemporary historical figures. That said, this portrayal is pretty much the embodiment of everything that one would expect of what Lincoln would be like. He’s funny and charming in a rustic way, but possesses a keen insight into the law and the delicate things that affect the political machine of the time turn one way or the other. Something that I hadn't expected was for him to be as warm of a person as Day-Lewis portrays him. He cracks jokes to lighten the mood, swears when things aren't going his way, and above all, has a deep and abiding love for his family. One of my favorite scenes features him asking two telegraph operators what they think about something in a display of simple candor.
Something that I really admire about Lincoln is its refusal to polish the pedestal too brightly. Lincoln was, by contemporary standards, a racist, even as he worked tirelessly to abolish what he considered to be a scourge upon American identity. There’s a pivotal scene where he discusses the implications of freedom with his wife’s black attendant and he tells her that he doesn’t really know her or members of her race but, he supposes that he will “get used to you.” It’s a moment of surprising nuance. Furthermore, Lincoln’s family life is given a pretty complex treatment in his relationship with his wife and their (not so) different responses to the grief of losing their son William. There’s a wrenching moment where he describes for the first time the pain he deals with on a daily basis.
Additionally, Tommy Lee Jones’ turn as Thaddeus Stevens pretty much steals every scene he’s in. There’s a wonderful moment where he’s forced to choose his words very carefully to support the Amendment without betraying his principles, and the balance he strikes is enough to make you pump your fist with a little theatrical celebration. The other performances are mostly fine too, with small parts for a ton of big names, but Day-Lewis and Jones are a cut above the rest. I’ll be up front. Daniel Day-Lewis deserves an Academy Award nomination at the very least. The only thing that’s keeping me from saying that he should win is that I want to wait until I’ve seen the other performances that might compete against him.
One of the emotions I felt most strongly in experiencing the film was sadness. In America today, the Republican Party is undergoing an identity crisis, as factions that want the party’s principles to adapt to changing times struggle against another faction that wants to take the GOP into ever more conservative territory. It’s sobering to remember that the Republican Party was once the party of emancipation and personal liberty, where it now seems committed to rewarding the wealthy and only affording equal rights to those groups, genders, and people that it approves of. It’s my sincere hope that the GOP finds a way to reclaim itself from those that would try to limit personal freedom and engage in exclusion.
Ultimately, Lincoln is the kind of film that one likes for sentimental reasons. There were a few occasions where the film choked me up, which seems to happen more and more as I get older. It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel or do anything that’s drastically different, opting to use a tried-and-true formula to tell the story of one remarkable man and the extraordinary times in which he found himself. After beginning the 21st century with a period of astonishingly prolific creativity, Spielberg has not crafted a masterpiece with Lincoln, nor has he made one of his more interesting films, but the film is comforting in the way that it offers rewards you just as you think it should. I’m grateful for that.
4 stars (out of 5)
If you're in the mood for more Spielberg, here's a look at one of my favorites. A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): Look Again.