There are three possible responses you might have to Lincoln, the long-in-development biopic from Steven Spielberg. You might instantly love the film, case closed. Or you might find it so shatteringly dull that you never want to come near it again. Or you might have a delayed response, a complicated mixture of the first two responses, one that admires the film but isn’t so taken with its inherent stodginess. I proclaim that I’m in that third category of audience member — within the first 15 minutes of Lincoln, I couldn’t believe how bored I was but, by the end, I knew I loved (and was fascinated by) enough of Lincoln to want to take another look (and another) down the road.
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner take as their dramatic impetus Lincoln’s intense (and ultimately successful) efforts to get the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, passed in the House of Representatives. Against the politicking and agitation pro and against the bill, the Civil War rages — another great weight on Lincoln’s shoulders. What’s more, Lincoln’s family life and relationship with his wife, Mary (Sally Field), are pained and haunted by the recent death of a child. The tragedy has driven Mary closer to a nervous breakdown and Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) must maintain a facade of strength — a kind of tough love — whenever Mary’s mental state begins to crumble.
The first impression that hits you about Kushner’s screenplay is how just how talky it is. We don’t come upon movies this talky anymore. Lincoln is supremely talky, almost to the exclusion of all other qualities. Scene after scene is rooted in dialogue — mostly dialogue among politicians, Lincoln among them, cajoling, bribing, and browbeating others into supporting the passage of the bill. When word arrives that the South may be ready to surrender, the news throws the chance of the bill passing into jeopardy — after all, would Americans care any longer about freeing slaves if the war over slavery is brought to an end? Thus, Kushner and Spielberg arrive at an effective race-against-the-clock device as Lincoln’s convictions about the moral imperative of the Thirteen Amendment are tested.
Apart from seeing the great moral crusade of American history devolve (by necessity) into a battle between Lincoln’s shrewd Machiavellian plotting — he hires lobbyists to bribe functionaries with sought-after posts in the administration in return for their votes — and the fire-and-brimstone fearmongering of anti-abolitionists in Congress, Lincoln offers a tender and heartbreaking look at the dynamics within the President’s family. As Mary seeks to shield her older son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from enlistment, we feel his anguish, his determination to join the Union effort not only to be of service to the country but to honor his pride and his manhood. We feel too Lincoln’s inner battle between his reluctance to endanger Robert (especially after suffering the death of another child) and his duty to let his son be his own man. Gordon-Levitt and Day-Lewis’s scenes together prove Spielberg’s keenness for depicting father-son relationships — something he’s shown mastery with throughout his career. Even more powerful are those moments — however fleeting they are — between Lincoln and his younger son Tad (Gulliver McGrath); we sense the bond that father feels for his son in every interaction they have. Tad adores his father and Lincoln is an infinitely loving and patient father. Spielberg shows us as much when, in one scene, Lincoln — weary from another’s day fight — finds Tad sleeping on the floor with this toys scattered before him. Lincoln lies down next to Tad, strokes his hair, and kisses him — actions which seem so organic, so unforced and natural as could only occur in those spontaneous moments between parent and child. Then Tad wakes — and without saying a word — climbs onto his father’s back before Lincoln stands and carries his son, piggy-backed, to bed. There’s another breathtaking moment, conveyed entirely though imagery and behavior, when Lincoln hears the pealing of bells outside his office — signaling his hard-fought Congressional victory. Father and son walk to the window. Spielberg’s camera views them through the curtain, blanched in heavenly daylight, as Lincoln holds his son and absorbs the moment’s exultation. It’s a moment of deep, thoughtful silence and extraordinary poignance, captured by a filmmaker working in peak form.
There is directorial mastery here, and, even for those like me for whom the power of Lincoln is a percolating realization, one thing is certain: The performance by Daniel Day-Lewis is astonishing. It is an uncanny, almost atavistic accomplishment of one man channeling the spirit of another and bringing him to life on-screen. Enough has been said in praise of Day-Lewis, both for his performance in Lincoln and his career as a whole, so I won’t delve much into it. Please note that the performance is nothing short of miraculous, the result of the actor’s (and the director’s) willingness to take major artistic leaps and span the chasm of time and between two souls, one invoking the deceased spirit of the other. Supporting performances from Tommy Lee Jones as fiery abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, and James Spader as cunning lobbyist W.N. Bilbo stand out in a solid cast.
Lincoln is, in many ways, Spielberg’s boldest and most committed picture. It is absent of the director’s visual showmanship as well as, thankfully, his propensity for drippy sentiment (something that’s marred otherwise solid Spielberg efforts). This is a straightforward, sharply written telling of one man and one nation facing their toughest crucible, workmanlike yet reverential. As a portrait of political acumen, moral resolve, and leadership (both within a family and as a President), Lincoln magnificently makes the case that the man it depicts more than deserves the iconic status that history and affection have afforded him.
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, James Spader, John Hawkes, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tim Blake Nelson, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill