by George Sax
Chasing votes and better angels
Steven Spielberg’s widely and grandly heralded Lincoln opens abruptly and startlingly, and for its first nine or 10 minutes seems to be getting off on the wrong foot. The very first images the audience encounters are of a brutally intimate, no-quarter battle panorama of stabbing, shooting, and hacking. This bloody battle scene is interracial, and Spielberg has a point to make, but it’s jarring and too unrelated to the rest of the picture. Then we’re segued into a far quieter post-battle interlude where the 16th president (Daniel Day-Lewis) is sitting on the edge of a platform and talking with several Union soldiers, two white and two black, conveniently enough. The talk quickly turns to Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, and the white boys each recite portions of it until they’re called away to duty. Whereupon, one of the young black men seems to challenge Lincoln’s political will to alleviate the oppressive political and social burdens on his race, and he too recites from the speech as he departs.
Spielberg is, of course, setting up his story and motifs, but these moments sound a little artificial and forced. But then the picture changes course and tone almost as abruptly as it began, and becomes an incisively detailed, moving, and even suspenseful historical drama (even though we know the outcome). It’s unquestionably one of the very best history films ever made. And it’s by far the best film about Lincoln ever made and likely to remain so for a long time. The country’s most admired chief executive has been treated almost reverentially in movies, starting with D. W. Griffith’s lightly jocose southern sympathizer in Birth of a Nation, his epochal but shamelessly racist and romantically reactionary silent from 1915. More than 20 years later, John Ford’s Young Abe Lincoln presented an amiably shrewd but sensitive young man who was plainly bound for glory.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is obviously the result of a real effort to present us with a man who is unmistakably a towering figure. But he’s also someone who strikes chords of human recognition. There are the almost inevitable awkward notes and excesses, but the tenor of the movie is never seriously deflected. That success is due in no small measure to Day-Lewis’s much-publicized and commanding performance. But the foundation and framework for Lincoln’s achievement were built by Spielberg and his writer, playwright (Angels in America) and screenwriter (Munich) Tony Kushner.
Their movie is both less and more than a biopic. It’s almost entirely focused on the effort of the president and the Republican members of the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the one that outlaws slavery, in January 1865. This concentration has produced an intensely dramatic and vivid motion picture. It has a profusion of colorful, imposing. and humanely interesting characters, and it permits a focus on Lincoln in the midst of a political battle. The movie’s portrait is penetrating and engrossing.
Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) organized the vote-getting operation, the object of which was 20 additional assents, or abstentions. As the movie vividly depicts, these were pursued by earnest appeal, political stratagems, promises of gain, and by political hook and crook, methods that would be outrageous, and illegal, today. Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (richly, baroquely, and memorably rendered by Tommy Lee Jones) later said of these efforts, “The greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America,” referring, of course, to Lincoln. Much of the movie’s plotting is conjectural, of necessity, and it makes for pungent, rollicking scenes. One figure not invented, Seward’s agent William Bilbo, a shady Tennessee lawyer, is brought to roguish life by James Spader’s performance.
One of the most important contributions made by Kushner is the movie’s unusual look at Lincoln the master pol. Hollywood’s Lincoln worship has largely precluded this. But just as important is the tightly elegant and sharply illuminating scene in which the president gives cabinet members a nearly three-minute argument about why ending the Civil War without irrevocably ending slavery presents grave legal and political possibilities. This could too easily have deteriorated into a stiffly pretentious little civics lesson but it doesn’t because of the writer’s great abilities with dramatic challenges as well as language, Day-Lewis’s uncannily convincing performance, and Spielberg’s subtly controlled direction.
Lincoln is that very rare example in popular movie art, a work that takes politics seriously. It respects the historical record, even as it departs from or reimagines it, and it gives audiences diverting, involving access to a story they’re unlikely to be familiar with. It’s no faint-praise condemnation to pronounce Lincoln an educational vehicle, because it’s also a rousing and affecting entertainment, even if sometimes somberly.
Spielberg and Kushner haven’t stinted on Lincoln, the man who existed before his elevation to totemic martyrdom. Their allegiance to his heroic status is never really strained, but a recognizably human figure emerges from all the considerable craft and art that’s been devoted to this movie. Day-Lewis’s ardently lauded interpretation melds into their take, but he’s fashioned a portrayal that encourages belief. The voice is probably more sere and cracked than the original, and even in makeup, Day-Lewis is rather less homely than his model, but the impersonation is very sturdy and persuasive. Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln has a tart-tongued, overwrought intelligence that should remind us of the actress’s sometimes overlooked gifts and technique.
Lincoln is a kind of epic despite its restricted time frame and settings because of its grand-scale theme and ambitions. Spielberg has found what seems, surprisingly, to be a near-ideal subject for his sometimes lyrically surging command of storytelling. He’s tempered his exploitively sentimental urges—though the material scarcely demanded he abandon them. The movie’s provocatively literate quality is due to Kushner, but this is Spielberg’s picture. Now and then—as when, near the end, he seems to be recapitulating Ford’s shot of Fonda’s young Lincoln trudging up a hill toward the horizon and destiny—he goes for an easy effect. And this Lincoln doesn’t have to grapple with the South’s depredations against its black population after the war, or his own conflicted feeling about black citizens. But neither did the real Lincoln, of course.
This is probably going to create the definitive popular image of Lincoln for a long time, and it will do.
Watch the trailer for Lincoln
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