Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Tony Kushner
Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, Jackie Earle Haley
How long is Lincoln? 149 minutes.
What is Lincoln rated? PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language.
We Get It, Lincoln’s Wise:
Try as Day-Lewis Might, Spielberg Fails To Get To
the Heart of the Man
Lincoln, or Abraham Lincoln and the Quest to Pass the 13th Amendment, is Steven Spielberg’s take on the final months leading up to the ratification of the 13th Amendment to outlaw slavery. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the iconic figure, Lincoln unfortunately suffers from the same trap as many biopics — looking at the myth more than the man.
As expected, Day-Lewis breathes life into Abraham Lincoln. And, as expected, he’s fantastic to watch, even if this isn’t a “call the Academy Award race for Best Actor over!” performance. From his work alone, Day-Lewis gives a humility and humanity to the ex-President that the script by Tony Kushner simply cannot achieve. Day-Lewis makes you believe not just that he has wisdom, but that he is wise.
Oddly enough, Lincoln‘s biggest asset (Day-Lewis) almost becomes its biggest weakness. The first part of the movie, which focuses primarily on the President, ends up comparatively weak. Expository dialogue between himself and Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn, just one of the many “Hey, It’s That Guy!”s in the picture), other politicians, and citizens come across as forced. Even in private, they converse in well-rehearsed talking points rather than as people. However, this is better than the unsuccessful attempts at depth, such as with the horrible opening sequence where Lincoln meets with Civil War combatants.
Lincoln is at its strongest when Lincoln is just a player in the grand scheme of this story. The film picks up after the House debate over the 13th Amendment starts and Lincoln practically becomes a side, or even background, figure. Obviously he’s an important factor who is willing and able to postpone a possible peace with the South in order to bring the amendment to a vote, but the other characters give more life, strength, and realism to the proceedings. A trio of political operatives (played by James Spader, John Hawks, and Tim Blake Nelson) unofficially hired by Lincoln to sway Democrats into joining Lincoln and the Republicans in passing the amendment reminds you that actual people lived during these times, not just sages. The rabble-rabble and blustering during the House of Representatives debate over ratification is similarly interesting to watch. As Representative Thaddeus Stevens, who dedicated decades of his life to the fight for abolition, Tommy Lee Jones, with his Tommy Lee Jones-ian rough, down-home, backwoods advice and common sense, provides a nice counterpart to Lincoln’s man of the ages. Fascinatingly, the film makes the passage of the Amendment appear more a Stevens victory than a Lincoln one. These aren’t negative qualities and show that the end of slavery in the United States was something more powerful than the will of one man.
Unfortunately, with the focus so heavily on the 13th Amendment, a lot of stuff not directly connected to it comes across as a bit pointless. Many of the scenes concerning Lincoln’s personal life seem to emerge from a “It’s called Lincoln, might as well give ’em Lincoln!” thought process. The parts with his family (with a particularly terrible Sally Field as his wife Mary Todd and a serviceable Joseph Gordon-Levitt as his eldest son Robert) might have been excised without affecting the impact of the movie. The scenes after the Amendment’s passage are especially anti-climactic. We don’t need to see the surrender at Appomattox Court House or Lincoln lying in bed, dead, following the assassination — that wasn’t the point of the movie any more than his time as a Congressman was. The battle in Lincoln wasn’t the Civil War, it was the 13th Amendment.
As director, Steven Spielberg certainly makes a good looking film. It’s large yet personal with naturalistic lighting, and you mostly believe that it’s a genuine historical epic. However, there is a sense of laziness with the drinking game-level amount of times Lincoln, usually in the center of the frame, will start a monologue and Spielberg will slowly pan in on him — as well as the shots that apparently exist just to show Lincoln looking presidential.
Disappointingly, as I said above, this is another “myth more than man” biopic, and I admittedly don’t look favorably on this cinematic approach to real-life persons. This is a Lincoln who is perpetually wise and never lets his hair down, so to speak. Lincoln has a pithy saying and clever anecdote for pretty much every occasion, which some of his contemporaries thankfully find annoying or obtuse. He’s never not on. The film acknowledges some of Lincoln’s darker actions — suspending habeas corpus, essentially creating the Constitution’s undefined War Powers, lying to Congress about the Confederate peace plan, and demanding his wards to do what it takes to get him his final votes — but these are mostly glossed over because Lincoln is doing this for greater good, for history. While Daniel Day-Lewis certainly elevates the role, as he is always apt to do, he can only take it so far, and the true complexity of the person of Lincoln, warts and all, remains sorely untapped.