I sincerely hope that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln will someday be regarded as one of the great contributions to American cinema. This is not a movie that takes any half measures; only the best and brightest talents were summoned for this project, both in front of and behind the camera. First and foremost on that list is Daniel Day-Lewis, who yet again relies on his chameleon-like ability to completely disappear into his roles. As the title character, he has basically guaranteed himself an Oscar nomination. Rightfully so – he truly does give one of the year’s best performances. If he isn’t recognized for this film, I will be forced to question my faith in the Academy.
He plays President Abraham Lincoln not as an idealized historical figure but rather as an earnest, soft-spoken man who was remarkably insightful and pragmatic in the pursuit of his political ambitions. For the purposes of this film, that amounts to the surrender of the Confederate Army, leading the American people towards the end of the Civil War, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which would at long last make slavery unconstitutional. All of this is encapsulated in a narrative timeframe of just one month, specifically January of 1865, mere months before his assassination at Ford’s Theatre at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. That is itself addressed in a way that’s just cinematic enough for a satisfying emotional climax but not so cinematic that it comes off as overly dramatic or manipulative.
For someone like me, who finds history unendurably boring, the screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner is nothing short of masterful, as it exemplifies a perfect balancing act between cold hard facts and the fire of the human soul. We’re not merely being told what happened a long time ago; we’re witnessing the dynamic unfolding of a political process and delving into the minds of the characters. This becomes especially apparent during House floor meetings, which are impassioned to say the least. We’re also treated to fine passages of dramatic dialogue. This is true not only of Lincoln, who gets his points across with parables and personal recollections, but of all the characters. Here’s a film you can merely listen to and still understand everything that’s going on.
Lincoln navigates his way through a plethora of political and personal relationships. And yet, this never makes the film jumbled or confusing; as it is in real life, events and encounters intertwine, branch off, merge, reveal common threads, and sometimes pop up at random. There are many meetings and discussions between Lincoln and other people. Of note are: Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a staunch abolitionist with a fiery temperament, especially during House meetings; Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), who is at times genuinely flustered by Lincoln’s reliance on parables; Robert Latham (John Hawkes), William Bilboe (James Spader), and Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), all of whom would be called lobbyists by today’s standards; and Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), a former slave who has no idea what the future holds for her people but understands that all journeys begin with a single step.
The single most important relationship Lincoln has is with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), who’s depicted not as a mad woman or a social climber but merely as a wife and mother who has been overly burdened. Having already lost one child to illness, she defiantly refuses to let her eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), join the Union Army, despite the fact that he has returned home from college and is determined to fight for his country. There’s love between husband and wife, and yet there’s also a clear misunderstanding of how they each express themselves, a situation that has been exacerbated by the strains of the War. Mary is obviously the more emotional of the two, although that doesn’t mean that Lincoln is incapable of feeling. We know this is true because of his periodic interactions with his twelve-year-old son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath).
It has been widely reported that the release date of this film was intentionally set for after the 2012 presidential election, so as not to influence how people would vote. This was a wise decision. Voting should never, ever be based on a movie, even if the subject matter happened to be based in fact. The people behind the wretched Atlas Shrugged: Part II, which was advertised as a deciding factor for the election, would have done well to consider the same tactic. Then again, maybe it wouldn’t have mattered; to date, it has grossed just over $3 million at the box office, falling very short of its estimated budget of $10 million. Unlike that film, Lincoln is a nothing less than a masterpiece – a triumph of casting, performance, writing, pacing, and atmosphere. To see it is to reaffirm one’s faith in the art and craft of filmmaking.