Spielberg, Day-Lewis Craft Strong, Flawed Portrait Of 16th President

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free.” – Abraham Lincoln in his “House Divided” speech on June 16th, 1858. Flash forward 150 years and one of the most lauded American filmmakers is presenting his assumedly definitive cinematic portrait of one of America’s most beloved political figures. Lincoln is the demigod of American history books, a superhero before there were superheroes, and one of the handful of Americans that lives up to his legend – his story is where myth and truth intersect. A reasonable person could argue that Lincoln was slow in challenging the institution of slavery, but the above quote confirms that he supported the correct and moral trajectory of the country years before he ran for President. Spielberg’s film is an accordingly loving depiction of the man himself, but it heeds to that quote a little too closely. It’s likely a coincidence that “Lincoln” is a film of two distinct halves, but they do indeed stand against each other.

In choosing to limit the scope of the picture to the last four months of Lincoln’s life, Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner made a very bold narrative choice – one that knowingly skips over signposts like the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln’s difficult 1864 re-election, not to mention the political turmoil of his younger years. The outcome of the Civil War was a foregone conclusion at this point, so the film lacks for drama in that respect, too. This results in a narrow, ponderous first act that does little to communicate the point that the film eventually makes. Also, the parade of movie stars is distracting – “I recognize him! And her!” – until the actors finally settle into their roles. Unfortunately, the first act comes off as dress-up hour mixed with the most meandering scenes of a rather drab-looking miniseries. There’s lots of talking, most of it likely to appeal to the most devoted of history geeks, but certain to leave some audiences perplexed.

Fortunately, when the House’s passage of the 13th Amendment (making slavery and involuntary servitude illegal) becomes a real possibility, the film not only gains its footing, but a spring in its step. A handful of the supporting characters come to life in a wonderful way, not the least of them Republican Thaddeus Stevens, played by a typically snarling Tommy Lee Jones. His relationship with the Lincolns is strained, but the President trusts him enough to give him the burden of passing the amendment through the House, come hell or high water. Another memorable storyline is that of three political operatives (played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) who are tasked with securing Democratic support for the bill. Their amusing brand of buffoonery is the spark the film needs to kickstart itself and maintain a sense of energy throughout. Keep in mind, this is not at all an action film, so the levity is much appreciated.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance is one-note, but what a note it is! His midwestern lilt pleasantly floats about until it’s time to accent his accent with a bit of volume. He also brilliantly bridges the gap between towering over people (Lincoln was 6’4”) while maintaining a slight hunch and decided limp that hammers home the man’s weariness (more on that in a moment). Inversely, one of the film’s problems is its indecision as to whether or not Lincoln was a suitable family man. An early scene depicts him caring for his sleepy son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), while seemingly coming to the realization that boys of a similar age are being sold as chattel, often to never see their families again. Yet, the President’s demeanor is icy towards his eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and he’s rather distant with his wife, the eccentric Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field). Instead of taking a stand on Lincoln as a husband and father, the film introduces these relationships without doing much with them – the same impasse that historians have dealt with for over a century.

However, Lincoln’s aforementioned weariness comes through loud and clear. If anything, the film is about the toll that the Presidency took on this man, made even more tragic by the fact that the audience knows he’s staring down death through the duration of the picture. The way Spielberg and Day-Lewis paint this picture of fatigue is often beautiful, as if Lincoln knew his time had come and gone – as if he knew he wasn’t long for the world. The film could have been much larger in scope had it explored more of Lincoln’s remarkable life, but the fact that it’s able to express such a terrific arc in a four-month span is a credit to Spielberg. Outside of the relative bore that is the first act, the narrowness of the narrative becomes a strength, allowing us to empathize with this man on a very human level. And Day-Lewis accomplishes what the rest of the cast doesn’t. He inhabits the role so well that we stop seeing the celebrity and for the first time, we see our 16th President, living and breathing on the screen right in front of us.

“Lincoln” isn’t nearly as sweeping or as “Oscar-bait-y” as its trailers might lead you to believe, and ironically, that’s one of its weaknesses. It could have been one of the great, unabashed American movies, but instead, it’s just a competent but muted record of an American hero with some great elements. Some will argue that its genius is taking the “myth” out of mythmaking, but it could be just as easily asserted that that’s what it’s missing. A terrific early, esoteric scene visualizes one of Lincoln’s dreams, a motif that demands revisiting. But, it’s forgotten as soon as its introduced, which is especially regrettable since it would have made a great coda in place of the actual (and unremarkable) ending. Is this the movie Spielberg set out to make? He’s never been one for reserved filmmaking, but so many of the elements here seem like he was deliberately playing against type. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is deeply washed out and John Williams’ score is sparse – both atypical of a Spielberg film. But while the constraints of this particular work occasionally fail the director, he gets enough of it right – most importantly, a skillfully realized vision of a man wonderfully fitted to his time.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: November 9, 2012 (Limited)
Studio: DreamWorks Pictures
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Tony Kushner
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language)