on November 30, 2012
Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner made some interesting and difficult choices in Lincoln that I think have succeeded in making a brilliant film about one of the most written about historical figures ever, and certainly the most written about and familiar American historical figure. And yet despite a billion words written about this man he still somehow remains an enigma with something withheld and unrevealable about the man. No doubt that is his continuing fascination to us and I have no doubt many more millions of words will be written, again vainly trying to get at the essence of the man. It is far easier to gaze in wonderous respect at the marble statue in his unmatched Memorial than to try to find the human being within the marble.
Spielberg and Kushner have done their best to try to find the man with the inestimable assistance of Daniel Day Lewis' genius. If they haven't succeeded completely, well they are in good company with a thousand other biographers. I liked the closeness and intimacy of the film. I liked the quiet. I liked the touching, beautiful and subtle small details: Lincoln lying down on the floor next to his sleeping son, the ever present shawl on his shoulders, the often stooped gait, Lincoln's ready reach for the illustrative yet sometimes illusive joke or story told with great good humor, Lincoln holding hands with Stimson as the war news comes in, Lincoln's fondness for and engagement with his young aides and soldiers, his gentle touches and the incredible mastery of his emotions, his rectitude and subtle manipulation of the obstreperous, passionate, often obtuse political allies and foes.
Throughout, Day Lewis is masterful in his delivery, conveying the homeliness of the man and yet the incredible strength and the sorrow that was with him every day of his Presidency that brought many of his detractors, especially Seward and others in the "team of rivals" to come to respect and love him. He's got not just the look, the voice, the walk and movements of the man down, he has the gentleness, and the innate dignity of the man as well. This is Lincoln at the end of the war and his soul-aching weariness coupled with his steely resolution is evident in every frame. He's superb. The rest of the characters in the drama have been cast carefully with wonderful actors who actually often resemble the real men they're playing. I could single out Tommy Lee Jones, David Straithairn, James Spader etc., but frankly everyone is marvelous in this cast down to every one of the maddening and quarrelsome Congressmen.
And I thought Sally Fields was a fine Mary Lincoln. Their scenes together played very well and conveyed in a few brief lines the struggles, regrets, tragic losses and difficulties that divide and also unite a long married couple who have weathered many travails. I found it convincing.
And finally, I am glad the focus of the film was the struggle to pass the 13th Amendment. Unless you're a history buff, I imagine this will come as some surprise to many and I found their handling of the politics and personalities at play both fascinating and engaging. I was absorbed and I imagine others will find revelatory the difficulty of passing this crucial legislation. And why not focus on this often overlooked struggle? As the film carefully explains, the whole moral purpose of the war, abolition, could have been undone postwar without it.
Some may find this narrowing of the events of the film to the last 6 months of Lincoln's life and the struggle to legislate a disappointment. Not me. As mentioned, we have had millions of words and many films and documentaries covering the overview of Lincoln's life. I applaud Spielberg and Kushner making an intimate film closeup and intense and, yes, full of dialogue and argument as the framework to illustrate an exceptional man in unimaginably difficult and tragic times, and finding within this closeup a glimpse of the man and his relations with wife, children, and friends and foes. It is a brilliantly acted and directed illustration of democracy being tested to its limits, ornery and contentious even within the midst of Civil War, and human beings at their most venal and at their most noble.
Many insights and much of this history is conveyed in dialogue (Lincoln's admission of his assumption of powers not necessarily granted him and ignoring of the law when he deemed it necessary is a prime example) and a potent line here and there speaks volumes about the war, the law, the Presidency, his marriage, his sorrow, his guile, and his steadfastness. Nicely done and will promote repeated viewing.
As expected from Spielberg, the production values are marvelous. Well done in all departments.