In today’s Hollywood, there aren’t many directors whose names are trademarks. “A Martin Scorsese movie” doesn’t have the meaning that “an Alfred Hitchcock movie” used to have; David Fincher’s name doesn’t promise the same kind of specific entertainment that John Ford’s once did. Steven Spielberg, though, is an exception, which has been both a blessing and a bit of a curse. The blessing part, of course, is that the strength of his brand has kept Spielberg rich and powerful for almost four decades (last year, even the pseudo-Spielbergian Super 8 was a hit). The curse can come into play, though, when he tries to stretch himself beyond audience expectations. Spielberg legendarily reinvented himself with Schindler’s List, but while that film was far removed from his previous work, it still had his filmmaking DNA in its mix of hurtling pace and openhearted emotion. When he tried, with Munich, to create something more ambivalent and analytical, the boxoffice rejected him. The same fate may very well befall his new Lincoln, the most sober and self-effacing work of his career.
Spielberg may also have done himself a disservice with the title of his film: Lincoln seems to promise an epic biography of the great man, but in fact the film is starkly confined. Virtually the entire 2 1/2 hour length of the film takes place during a few weeks in January 1865, and the story is exclusively concerned with Lincoln’s struggle during those weeks to have the House of Representatives pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which was needed in order to abolish slavery in a more permanent way than the wartime Emancipation Proclamation had done while combat raged. Lincoln details the President’s heroic efforts, by a mixture of guile, wit, appeals to conscience and flat-out browbeating, to secure the 20 Democratic votes or abstentions that would give the Amendment the two-thirds majority it needed in the House, while not alienating either the conservative or radical wings of his own Republican party.
In doing so, Lincoln had to walk a very delicate tightrope of timing and balance. The South was all but ready to end the war, but if he waited for the southern states to rejoin the union, the Amendment might never pass, and slavery might go on. On the other hand, if the public felt that passing the Amendment would prolong the war, he could lose support. The Democrats and conservative Republicans urged him to put the Amendment on hold, while the more radical Republicans were disgusted that the measure didn’t go far enough.
In a sense, Lincoln is the longest and most ornate episode of The West Wing ever, with Lincoln as Josiah Bartlet. (it’s also the closest we’re likely to come to a film adaptation of Robert Caro’s “Master of the Senate,” which recounted the remarkable way Lyndon Johnson cobbled together a coalition to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957.) It sets out the messy, methodical and sometimes downright dishonest way that even the most worthy bills become law, in a clear and straightforward manner. One could say screenwriter Tony Kushner (famed as the Tony- and Pulitzer-winning author of Angels in America, and also a writer of the Munich script) is doing his best Aaron Sorkin here, but Kushner himself has more than enough skill at rhetoric and the mix of public policy with private conflict.
What makes Lincoln more than just a history lesson, however, is its portrayal of Lincoln himself as a fascinatingly multi-faceted, believable politician and human being. Although Spielberg and Kushner are in large part responsible for that, ultimately one must bow yet again to the acting genius of Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis made a rare misstep by following his titanic performance in There Will Be Blood with Nine, a mediocre movie and a role for which he was simply not well cast (even beyond his inability to sing). As Lincoln, though, he’s completely back on his game. Watching his immersive performance as an idealistic, practical, shrewd, homespun, sorrowful, determined, self-aware Lincoln, one doesn’t question the stories about Day-Lewis not leaving character during filming, but wonders instead how he ever emerges. This Lincoln is august and strong in his morality, but he’s also a teller of dirty jokes, a man barely able to deal with the complicated love he bears for his troubled wife Mary (Sally Field, excellent), and not above a little chicanery and bribery to get his Amendment passed. This will be a tough year for the Best Actor race, with superb work from Joaquin Phoenix, Denzel Washington, and John Hawkes already among those on display, and to no one’s surprise, Day-Lewis will be very much among them, in the running for his third Oscar.
Spielberg has surrounded Day-Lewis with an astonishing panoply of character actors in the supporting cast. Apart from Field, there’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln’s oldest son Robert, and the politicians and soldiers include Jared Harris, James Spader, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Dakin Matthews, Tim Blake Nelson, Dave Constabile, Michael Stuhlbarg, Adam Driver, Walton Goggins, and–first among equals–Tommy Lee Jones, in a fierce, droll performance as the conscience of the abolitionists, Thaddeus Stevens.
Spielberg’s own direction has never been so low-key or controlled. At times, Lincoln can feel like a filmed stage-play (some are already likening it to a TV docudrama), with very little in the way of visual ornamentation or showy camera moves–its unflashy, unshowy style is reminiscent of Mike Nichols or Sidney Lumet. There are very rare moments where the director allows himself to be briefly “Spielbergian” (perhaps one shot too many of Lincoln playing with his younger son as the vote goes on in Congress and of the President leaving for the theater, a bit too much heavenly chorus on the soundtrack as Lee surrenders to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse), but for the most part, Spielberg lets his style suit the material, subdued and simple. All of Spielberg’s usual behind-the-scenes team follow his lead. Janusz Kaminski’s photography is far less self-conscious than his work on War Horse or their other recent films, Michael Kahn’s editing plays no tricks (some will call the pace dry, although it’s quite compelling on its own terms), Rick Carter’s production design is convincing rather than sumptuous, and for the most part, John Williams’ score is extremely spare and restrained.
Lincoln may not offer the distinctive pleasures of “a Steven Spielberg movie” in the traditional sense (although recent entertainments like the Indiana Jones sequel and War Horse suggest Spielberg himself has less interest in those than he used to). It is, rather, a solid and beautifully composed story about a crucial moment in American history, and the fullest portrait on screen of one of the greatest of all Americans.
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