Opening scenes are an important part of any film’s momentum, and the opening scene of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is rough. In the scene we see the titular president visiting a Civil War battlefield and converse with two pairs of union soldiers, one pair white and the other black, and both view the president as a hero and quote the Gettysburg Address to him from memory. It’s a cute way to get the famous speech into the film, but the situation feels contrived and its shot with a degree of whimsy that’s just wrong for the time period. Were anyone else directing the scene probably wouldn’t have been as ominous had anyone else been directing but Spielberg has a long history of softening material that could be gritty and his last film, War Horse, was probably his sentimental nadir. However, this opening scene is misleading, in many ways Lincoln is the anti-War Horse, in many ways it’s so (relatively) restrained that it makes War Horse look like some sort of throw away project that Spielberg put together so that he could purge all his worst instincts in preparation for his ambitious project about our 16th president.
Saying that this is a project about Abraham Lincoln actually isn’t entirely true; contrary to what is implied by the title this isn’t really a biopic. The film focuses almost entirely on the political machinations required in order to pass the thirteenth amendment through the House of Representatives, which firmly put an end to slavery once the Civil War ended. Abraham Lincoln (played here by Daniel Day-Lewis) is obviously a major participant in this movement, but he’s not really the film’s focus for much of its run time. The film is actually an ensemble piece consisting of dozens of speaking roles and depicts the wide range of characters that needed to work together in order to get the 2/3 vote needed to pass the amendment. We see this from the perspective of Lincoln, his cabinet member, his family, his political allies, his lobbyists, and also from the perspective of some of the lowly representatives who would pass the deciding votes.
Some of the standout cast members include Tommy Lee Jones as the radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, who steals a number of scenes with his acerbic wit and passion. Hal Holbrook also steals scenes in the role of Francis Preston Blair, an aging member of the Republican’s conservative wing which is more interested in ending the war than freeing slaves.
It’s not just the actors playing famous historical figures that stand out. Actors like James Spader and John Hawks, who both play party operatives trying to sway moderate Democrats over to their side, are just as noteworthy and memorable as actors like David Strathairn and Jared Harris (who play William Seward and Ulysses S. Grant respectively). I could go on and on like that; this cast is absolutely stacked with top rate talent doing great work in interesting roles.
Of course one couldn’t begin to talk about the acting in this film without getting into the work that Daniel Day-Lewis does as Lincoln himself. Day-Lewis is amazing here both for how good his imitation of honest Abe is but also how well he restrains himself in order to blend in with his cast. Assisted by some excellent makeup, Day Lewis looks exactly like Lincoln and he conducts himself with all the dignity that one expects of the role. It would have been easy for Day-Lewis to beat his chest throughout the film and command every second of his screentime as he did in Gangs of New York and There Will Be Blood (two films where such acting was entirely appropriate), but instead he comes across entirely human and thoughtful. After a while I stopped thinking of the man on screen as a role being played by an actor, it just felt like I was watching the Abraham Lincoln up on the screen and only occasionally would I stop and think “wait a minute, this is actually the dude from The Last of the Mohicans, that’s amazing.”
The film’s dialogue is at times a little lofty and theatrical. It’s clear that the script, written by Pulitzer prize winner Tony Kushner, has cherry-picked many of the finest quotes from all of these politician and put them into basic conversations between characters and that can seem a little hard to swallow at times. Lincoln himself comes off a little too much like an OG Jed Bartlet at times, especially when he continuously comes up with wise historical anecdotes for almost every situation, and his speechifying does strain credibility at times. Still, I can’t help but be amazed at just how effectively Kushner was able to bring all of these complicated political dealings to the screen in such a highly efficient and accessible way. The screenplay perfectly explains all the stakes involved and all the maneuvers therein without ever talking down to the audience and while still having time for personal character arcs and moments of comic relief.
Meanwhile, Steven Spielberg manages to bring this script to the screen in a way that is, for him, very restrained and dignified. Spielberg edits the film at a brisk pace which gives the film a nice sense of immediacy and he also avoids sentimentality more often than he doesn’t. From a visual perspective this probably isn’t one of his best, but it’s hardly ugly. Much of the action takes place in very dark light (which is accurate given that this is set in Washington before the advent of electricity), and that may be off putting for some, but Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography does get its job done. I won’t say that Spielberg’s less savory habits don’t pop up occasionally in the form of some overly dramatic music ques (though John Williams is wisely restrained for much of the film) and a couple of other questionable moments. For the most part though, Spielberg more than acquits himself and has staged a nice comeback from the disaster that was War Horse.
Opening wide just a week after a closely won but highly impassioned election, Lincoln couldn’t be any more relevant today. We worship Abraham Lincoln today but one could hardly imagine a more divisive figure in his day what with half the country partaking in an armed rebellion against his leadership. Even without confederate politicians in Washington we still see passions running incredibly high on the floor of the House of Representatives. The representatives on the floor actively hurl insults at one another and fight and bicker and scheme against one another with incredible rancor. Watching Lincon’s men work day and night to pass the amendment I couldn’t help but think of all the trouble Barack Obama went through to pass his Healthcare Reform bill. The stakes in passing that bill weren’t as high as they were for the thirteenth amendment, and his opposition wasn’t as… treasonous as Lincoln’s was, but the parallels are still there. If anything the political process in this country has changed a lot less than we like to think.
Perhaps one of the things to be learned from this period of history is that the greatest leaders aren’t necessarily the ones who play it safe, nor are they always going to be the ones who unite disparate parties. There are some things that are simply too important to allow to continue just because the status quo will keep the opposition at bay. Lincoln was a man who, by the late stages of the Civil War, could no longer compromise about slavery and may have paid with his life for standing by that conviction. Still, the legacy of what he was able to accomplish lives on. That’s something to consider when, at the moment, there is much talk of a need to compromise in order to get things done in Washington and this film is full of compromise. Lincoln spends a great deal of time thinking back on previous compromises like the Emancipation Proclamation and regretting that they are mere half steps. He also compromises in order to get the conservative wing of his party to vote with him. Furthermore, he finds himself compromising some of his loftier principles by making under the table deals for votes and by lying at certain stages of the process in order to keep the vote on the floor. Other figures like Thaddeus Stevens also find themselves compromising some of their rhetoric for the greater good. And yet, all of this compromise is done in order to reach a noble end: the abolition of slavery once and for all, and on that principle there could be no compromise.
I’d love to say that Lincoln is somehow perfect, but it certainly isn’t. It never really finds the right place to stop, and after the passage of the thirteenth amendment the film sort of forgets that it isn’t really a biopic and keeps going. I’m also not fully convinced that Spielberg was the right person to bring this script to the screen. I can just imagine how well this would have worked in the hands of someone like Michael Mann or Paul Greengrass or someone else who could have really given this the feel of a quick moving modern political thriller that just happened to take place in 1865. Still, so much of Lincoln works so well that I can’t help but whole heartedly endorse it. When all is said and don’t it probably won’t be canonized next to Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Saving Private Ryan, and Munich within the highest ranks of Spielberg’s filmography, but it is still an amazing work of historical cinema made by some of Hollywood’s finest talent.
**** out of Four