Abraham Lincoln is arguably the greatest president America has ever known.
So I suppose it’s appropriate that he’s played by arguably the greatest actor of his generation in a film directed by arguably the greatest director of his generation.
Lincoln is one of those films that, obviously, cannot have been produced by another country. I know that comes off as a pretty silly observation, but it’s the kind of film oozes Americana. It’s the Norman Rockwell painting misplaced in a few decades back. It’s a classically American film, and inevitably so.
That being said, it’s also surprisingly–or not so surprisingly–pedestrian. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, but it’s also not exactly a compliment.
I think what I am trying to say is–correct me if I’m wrong–Lincoln is to America in 2012 how The King’s Speech probably was to Britain back in 2010. Both are inspirational, uplifting, heroic, elegant, charming. Both are also simple and safe. They could have been a lot more daring, but instead, they chose a very, very safe route.
I suppose there’s nothing particularly wrong about being safe when it comes to film-making. But by doing that, the possibilities just become so limited.
Lincoln focuses on a very slim time frame in the Lincoln presidency. The film only spans around four months–it covers the beginning of Lincoln’s re-election, the civil war, the passing of the 13th Amendment, and Lincoln’s assassination. It’s a stark contrast to something as dangerously comprehensive as Oliver Stone’s Nixon. In comparison, Lincoln is a lot less complex, but also there are less ways to mess anything up.
However, I’m just being cynical. This film is fairly entertaining. It appeals to the American history and constitutional politics buff in me. Keep referencing the two-thirds majority, the vague presidential war-making powers, the tension between state and federal rights, the question of franchise. I’m listening. Those things make me smile.
I also love to watch people play politics. What made Lincoln such a brilliant president was that he knew how to play the politician’s game. This film illustrated this very well. Although he believed that there was a moral reason for ending slavery, he knew how to play dirty along with his fellow politicians. He was relentlessly calculating: That was how he passed the 13th Amendment through a house with only simple majority of Republicans. That was how he was able to get the Confederates to surrender and reunify the United States of America. His Reconstruction plans saved the south, post-civil war. Here was a guy who clearly knew what he was doing.
And the film was able to convey that. It also does a fair job portraying the Lincolns’ family troubles, regarding the death of their son and how it affected the couple’s marriage and their oldest son’s desire to join the army. It also does a fine job showing the multiple facts of Lincoln’s personality–all the determined, ambitious, charming, lighthearted, melancholy, frustrated parts that made him the man that he was.
I wish everything went deeper, though. Sure, this could be the fault of Tony Kushner’s script or perhaps dependent on however much information there is available on Lincoln, but I felt like the film had trouble trying to balance its thundering portrayal of the president and its portrayal of the man behind the presidency. It’s almost like finding the balance between Bruce Wayne and Batman, and every other superhero movie out there. Whether you think it’s for the right reasons or not, Abraham Lincoln has been immortalized as an American hero, and this film struggled to achieve a fulfilling hero to man ratio.
Nevertheless, director Steven Spielberg has crafted a well-made film. It’s not his best, yes, but it’s one of his finer efforts of recent years. He has an overwhelming desire to spell everything out for the audience, but there are very few filmmakers who does the kind of service Spielberg does for his fans–he reminds them why they go to the movies, why they even bother. Sometimes he doesn’t know where to stop–in this case, he could have cut out his awkward epilogue–but I also get the sense that he pins it on because he’s passionate enough about the story he’s telling that he needs closure for the sake of closure; there’s a endearingly selfish quality to it, but I get it. In addition, he understands atmosphere, he knows how to tell a story, he knows when to let the music swell up. And the man knows how to direct a harrowing speech; in those house scenes, I was reminded of Anthony Hopkins’ lovely speech in Amistad, an often-forgotten Spielberg film, also on the topic of slavery.
A Lincoln review is not complete with some praise for Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as the titular character. Day-Lewis is, if not one of the greatest actors, one of the most versatile. He has given Lincoln a voice so gentle, so soft-spoken, so light–a quality about Lincoln I already knew about–and he also looks exactly like the Lincoln we’ve seen in the history books, which would have been a little shocking at first if I didn’t already see photos of Day-Lewis as Lincoln months earlier. There is a sense of complexity that Day-Lewis gives Lincoln that’s not probably not immediately present in the script. He also makes Lincoln so darn likable, that it’s impossible to ever shun him even when he’s clearly being the ruthless politician rather than the great moral compass elementary school history often portrays him as.
The rest of the cast delivers strong supporting performances, notably Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, James Spader as the Republican lobbyist, and Tommy Lee Jones as the leading abolitionist in the house, Thaddeus Stevens.
While Spader and Jones have been receiving major praise for their comedic, though touching turns, I want to bring special attention to David Strathairn’s wonderful supporting performance as Secretary of State William Seward. Seward’s visibly driven, impatient persona serves as an entertaining contrast to Lincoln’s calculating nonchalance; Strathairn and Day-Lewis complemented each other well. Strathairn plays the conscience to Day-Lewis’ engine and he does so with such excellent diligence.
Lincoln is a lovingly made film about a beloved American president. It’s a fairly unpretentious, straightforward re-telling of a particular time in American history, done with good-hearted intentions. So let the sentimentality penetrate, let the music swell, feel patriotic, and let us glorify the achievements of dead white men who just happened to believe in the right thing. Amen.