Lincoln is an epic achievement. Smart, inspiring and bold, the film shows a vision for what government can be and what it can do. It presents a road map for sensible political compromise in the pursuit of historic and important goals. And it paints a compelling portrait of Abraham Lincoln as a flawed, imperfect man who was nonetheless a genius and a once-in-a-generation visionary.
This isn’t a biopic; Lincoln doesn’t take us from the log splitting days of young Abe to the White House. It doesn’t even spend much time on the Civil War. In fact the majority of the film takes place during the final months of the War Between the States, that great act of treason. The war is winding down and Lincoln, gaunt and grey, turns his attention to one last sweeping effort: the passage of the 13th Amendment.
Think of Lincoln as West Wing: 1865. The film’s essentially a political procedural, following the almost-frantic attempts of the Lincoln White House to finally, once and for all, eliminate slavery in America. Lincoln enjoyed support for the 13th Amendment when he argued that it would be a way to help end the war, but as the war’s finale looms, he knows people will be less likely to stand behind eradicating slavery. And so it all becomes a great political calculation as the man balances the fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of lives are being lost daily while he has to stall peace to wrest into being one of the greatest and most important changes in American history.
Lincoln is one of the least Spielbergian Spielberg movies. There are certainly times where he leans too heavily on the score, and he drags the ending out longer than it needs to go, but Lincoln is not one of his cloying Oscar movies. This isn’t Amistad again (although it’s probably closest to Amistad in the whole of the Spielberg canon). Lincoln is a movie about ideas and intellectual courage, and Spielberg dials back most of his signature flourishes to allow the ideas and the debate to shine through. He puts his filmmaking into the service of every single word of Tony Kushner’s script. It is magnificent.
How much does Spielberg dial it back? You know how in every period piece these days there’s that CGI shot of the city in ye olde times, with mud streets and famous buildings under construction and smoke rising from chimneys and old fashioned carriages and steam boats on the river? There’s none of that here; the film uses some CGI for set extension when Lincoln is in the streets of Washington DC, but it’s nothing flashy. Spielberg is creating the period through immediacy of performance and set design, not through splashy digital chicanery. It’s refreshing. Spielberg isn’t trying to wow us, he’s trying to engage us.
His biggest weapon to do that, besides Kushner’s marvelous and funny script, is his cadre of impeccable actors. There is not a bad performance in this movie, and even the least of the actors is delivering solid, awards-worthy work. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an ensemble that is so powerful from top to bottom without ever once strutting or preening. There are no showboats in this movie, only extraordinary talents delivering some of the most extraordinary performances of their lives.
Picking out any to discuss is a problem; I could write an essay on the subtleties and joys of each actor, from James Spader’s surprising energy and comedy to David Straitharn’s astonishing deftness juggling exasperation with and admiration for the president he serves as Secretary of State. One performance that must be singled out, though, is Daniel Day-Lewis; in a career marked by high point after high point this might be the highest. His transformation into Lincoln changes him, body and soul; there is no hint of anyone on screen but the 16th president, no sign of playacting or a single tic or remark or glance that calls to mind any of Day-Lewis’ other classic roles. This isn’t performance, it’s utter transmogrification, as magical as lead transmuting into gold. By the end of the movie, as Lincoln lays on his deathbed, you have forgotten you’re watching a performance or an actor. You are peering through time and seeing reality, unvarnished and true, play out before you.
I’ll go all the way: this is the pinnacle of Day-Lewis’ acting career, his ultimate and best performance. He is now the popular image of Lincoln; gone from our pop consciousness is Royal Dano’s sonorous animatronic voice, replaced with Day-Lewis’ high pitched, folksy verbal amblings. There are many moments in the film where Lincoln stops and slows down and tells a story, and Day-Lewis sucks you in just as the historical figure must have; the idea of a one-man show, of Day-Lewis simply sitting on stage for an hour or two in this persona, relating wise, funny tales and confessing dark and troubled thoughts, is so good I hope somebody jumps on it. Get Kushner to write it and you have a legendary, Tony-gobbling show.
As I said before, Day-Lewis does not stand alone. And in fact, if everyone else wasn’t excelling, his performance would stand out in an ugly, strange way. Every actor in the film supports him perfectly in their own excellence. Sally Field shines, multi-faceted like a diamond, as Mary Todd Lincoln, the president’s deeply troubled - but deeply influential - wife. Tommy Lee Jones (yes, the wig is supposed to look silly) explodes on screen as Thaddeus Stevens, a lifelong abolitionist who spits righteous, hilarious fire at his hateful enemies. Check Tommy Lee Jones off on your Oscar prediction sheets now - this is Best Supporting Actor business. John Hawkes and Tim Blake-Nelson stand alongside James Spader (did I mention that this is the best work Spader has ever done, and that it will forever change how you look at him?) as political operatives who feel like they stepped right out of the 19th century - perfect, ideal, wonderful casting.
All of these actors have been gifted with Tony Kushner’s script. At times it’s theatrical - people speak in the flowery phrasings that we see in correspondence of the time - but it’s always real. And it’s always in the service of strong ideas, big thoughts, and moral quandaries that are just as relevant today as they were in 1865. Lincoln and his cabinet must figure out how to navigate the swamps of grey morality in pursuit of true, eternal goodness.
Lincoln never flinches from the conflicts of morality that the president faced. It never paints him as a saint - like everyone around him, he’s unsure that blacks should get the vote or even what will happen to the country once slavery is ended. He knows no black people. He knows only one thing: his belief that humans are created equal and that the idea of enslaving fellow men and women is completely evil. And he knows that he has this moment in time, these few weeks, to really follow through and end that evil.
Tension is a funny thing in cinema. You can create extraordinary tension even when the outcome is known. Ben Affleck did that wonderfully in Argo, and Spielberg does it masterfully in Lincoln. As the film comes to the Senate vote on the 13th Amendment the tension is thick, palpable. We all know how this ends - when’s the last time you bought somebody? - but the debate in the Senate is edge-of-your-seat stuff, an anxious, gut-knotting climax. It’s incredible! This is filmmaking at its highest.
Anxiety is generated, but so are laughs. The film is remarkably funny and witty; every time the political machinations threaten to capsize the proceedings James Spader shows up, injecting life, or Lincoln begins spinning one of his tales (he does this so much that one of the characters, in a moment of great stress, yells at him for telling yet ANOTHER story). I wouldn’t say that Lincoln is light, but it’s goddamned enjoyable and entertaining. If you’re an intelligent viewer who relishes hearing smart people bounce thoughts and barbs off one another - if you like the Aaron Sorkin thing, basically - you’re going to eat this up.
This is Spielberg, though, so there is some sentiment. The decision to follow the story all the way through to Lincoln’s death is, I think, the only misstep in the movie... but even then it’s a misstep that is handled with class and restraint and emotion. I choked up, even though I found myself wishing the movie ended five minutes earlier. There’s a bit of an emotional one-two punch at the end, and I think the one hit would have been enough. The film has a revelation about a character’s love life that will resonate even stronger today, after gay marriage votes across the country, and I think that revelation is the emotional denouement the movie needed. Everything else is over-icing the cake. But it’s damn good icing.
Lincoln speaks to this exact moment in history. The titular president, much like our current president, was forced to deal with an obstinate, obstructionist opposing party (the parties have switched places, but it’s still Republicans vs Democrats). The way that Lincoln used political maneuvering, common sense and a little bit of shady deal-making is inspiring and fills me with hope. It’s easy to get into a narrow view of politics, to see only the bad side, but Lincoln reminds us that sometimes good men come along and manipulate the venal and the weak into performing, against their own better judgement, works of incredible public good. This is the system we have, and instead of decrying it and bitching about it, we need men and women who will grab it and force it to submit. That’s what Abraham Lincoln did - but with a genteel, woodsy fashion.
Lincoln is one of the best movies of the year, and it’s one of the best movies of Spielberg’s career. It’s a film that speaks to his growth as a filmmaker; the bravest thing he does here is to pull himself back, to let the performances and the script speak for themselves, to act as a guide to this and not as a showman or a spectacle-maker. He has made a film that presents a mature, finely gradated examination of right, wrong and the murky place between them. And he has made it fun, and enjoyable. He has made a movie about thinkers and debaters for thinkers and debaters. He has made a movie where eloquence and conviction are the action elements, not chases and explosions.
He has made, simply, a masterpiece.