Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn
Like War Horse, which disguised a story of human courage and resilience as a “horse movie,” Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has at its core an ingenious feint. One might expect something like this to be an admiring biopic in the vein of Schindler’s List; a paean to the moral heroism of a great man. What Spielberg gives us instead – and this floored me – is a studied and stunningly wonky meditation on compromise. And also (consequently) a trenchant, unidealized film about our imperfect political process, and the terrible burden of real-world leadership.
The unremitting focus of Lincoln is the path to getting the Thirteenth Amendment, abolishing slavery, approved by the House of Representatives. (As the film begins, it has already passed the Senate.) The Civil War rages, and a head-spinning number of tactical considerations (all rendered with crystal clarity by Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner) have played into Lincoln’s decision that now is the time to push the Amendment through. His advisors and the conservative faction of his Republican party protest that he should not antagonize the Confederacy by pressing forward with abolition, but instead strive for peace – a point of view made more urgent by the fact that a delegation of Confederate muckety-mucks is on its way to Washington to negotiate. The abolitionist Republicans hesitate to support an Amendment they think is doomed to failure. And the Democrats work to engineer its downfall.
Lincoln is played by a remarkable Daniel Day-Lewis as a thoughtful, exhausted man, roaming the White House swaddled in blankets and weighed down by his iconic top hat. He has a wry sense of humor and a fondness for long-winded anecdotes to illustrate his points. (“I don’t believe I can bear to listen to another one of your stories,” blurts the Secretary of War (Bruce McGill) before storming out of the room when Lincoln attempts to regale the crowd at a particularly nerve-wracking moment.) The film admires the man deeply, but – with the exception of one scene in a telegraph office – doesn’t gawk at him in awe. It sympathizes more than it worships.
The movie is at its heart a West Wing-ish political drama, talky and detailed, submerged in legislative maneuvering, shot in patient, unflashy golden tones by a subdued Spielberg. It doesn’t lack for stirring scenes, but they aren’t what you would expect: one of the biggest moments of triumph involves abolitionist Senator Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones in one of the best roles of his career) finding the courage to betray his heretofore unyielding principles before the floor of the House to better the Amendment’s chances of passage. Lincoln makes his own painful compromises, putting at stake his reputation (he directs his underlings to essentially buy votes for the Amendment’s passage), the well-being of his son Robert (beautifully played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a tiny role), the fragile psyche of his wife (Sally Field), and the lives of countless men. But the movie is less about his bravery and resolve than his fortitude – not about what he had to risk to do the right thing, but what he had to bear. The movie unmelodramatically suggests that Lincoln’s life may have been more of a martyrdom than his death.
On first viewing, Lincoln seemed just a little bit stagey and plodding – scene after scene of rehearsed speeches and bombast. But I think I’ll come around even to its style. It’s a vivid, clear-eyed view of the vagaries (and virtues) of representative democracy, and of what history demands from its leaders.
— Eugene Novikov