Lincoln: This Outstanding Presidential Drama Is One For The Ages
Before watching it, it’d be easy for cynics to dismiss Lincoln as “Oscar bait.” Sir Steven Spielberg helming a historical period piece written by mutiple Tony winner Tony Kushner and starring Oscar golden boy Daniel Day Lewis? Seems like carefully constructed Academy cat nip. Yet if this is “Oscar bait,” then put me on the hook and reel me in—Lincoln is the best drama of Spielberg’s career, an intelligent, accessible, funny, deeply moving, and surprisingly subtle outing that would even impress John Wilkes Booth devotees, much less the cynics. While the proceedings are predominantly old white men sitting around and talking, it couldn’t be more thrilling—Spielberg and Kushner have managed to make the inner workings of the House of Representatives more exciting than most Hollywood action films. Supported by one of the deepest casts in recent memory headed by three of the best performances of the year, Lincoln is the reason why historical period pieces became considered “Oscar bait” in the first place: when done so breathtakingly well, they’re among the most engaging and enthralling of cinematic experiences. Lincoln is an experience, all right: it proves you don’t need giant battles or sweeping landscapes to be epic.
The Civil War rages on, and Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has just been re-elected. Having already freed the slaves in the Confederacy, Lincoln aims to do one better and free them permanently in the Union via a constitutional amendment. Several problems lie in the way: first, many Americans, including politicians, fear what black people would do if given freedom and are deathly afraid of the slippery slope. What’s next, they get the right to vote? Additionally, many politicians were hoping that slavery would be used as a bargaining chip to put the Confederates at the negotiations table to draw up a truce, ending the war: give them their slaves and they’ll potentially stop fighting. Lincoln sees a great opportunity to seize the moment and pass this amendment—the opposing party has several lame ducks in office for the next two months until the new politicians come into power, and with the right finessing and bargaining, maybe Lincoln can get the votes he needs. With the help of abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), Lincoln gets to work… but when his own son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to join the Union soldiers in battle, his wife (Sally Field) gives him a warning: if their child dies because he wanted to free slaves, woe betide him.
Usually, I’d pick a couple of exceptional images or scenes to discuss in detail in a review; Lincoln, however, has an embarrassment of riches, to the point where short of writing a book I can’t possibly cover them all in a worthy fashion. Lincoln’s story in the telegraph office. His discussion with the black woman. His argument with Mary over whether their son should be allowed to fight. James Spader jogging. Mary’s verbal dressing down of Thaddeus Stevens. Anything involving Thaddeus Stevens. Thaddeus Stevens’ last scene in particular, perhaps the best moment of Tommy Lee Jones’ onscreen accomplishments. I can sense I’m starting to get broad, because I just know I’m going to fail to mention some outstanding moments. Give a remarkable amount of credit to Tony Kushner, whose characterizations and forward momentum of action in this script are nothing short of blessed. I was blown away by how funny the film was, and I was taken aback by how touched I was. It wasn’t just due to my admiration of Lincoln or the current political zeitgeist—it was the execution. Kushner simply knows the value of words: when to use them and when to let a single look do the talking.
I said above that this film might play host to the finest moment of Tommy Lee Jones’ career. Let me go one step further: it is easily among the best performances of the year, and I struggle to envision a scenario in which Jones fails to win a second Academy Award. On the surface, Thaddeus Stevens is comic relief, and Jones gets laughs here bigger than I’ve given entire comedies this year. Yet Thaddeus Stevens has a tender heart, something not usually associated with Jones, and in the sensitive moments, he absolutely smashes it out of the park. I recall a scene in which Jones is merely silently walking, and the expression of his face gets me misty-eyed even now as I think about it. I also hope Sally Field’s performance is not underappreciated: at film’s beginning, she seems tonally separate from the other characters, as both her role in society and her mental state differ from the multitudes of politicians. As the film rolls forward, we get used to her rhythms, her motivations, and the energy she brings to each scene, and it’s a joy to watch. This is not the usual “supportive wife” role we get in the ordinary biopic: she has a full arc and some deep troubles to overcome.
It’s easy to be blasé about Day-Lewis’s performance too: “great per usual.” It’s worth noting that he is absolutely a different type of great here than his usual performance. This is immensely subtle work compared to Gangs of New York, There Will Be Blood, and the like. He typically crafts larger than life characters that dominate the screen through huge voices, faces, gestures. His Lincoln is larger than life and he does dominate the screen… but he does so through subtle warmth, humor, folksiness. We learn how Lincoln became so popular: he was a powerful orator who was overwhelmingly successful at relating personally to the common man. This performance mirrors Spielberg’s directorial accomplishment. Again, he’s not been known for subtlety throughout his career, yet with only a couple of exceptions, the emotional moments are restrained in execution (as is John Williams’ score, the most subtle of his collaborations with Spielberg). If he’d shouted at us or attempted to manipulate us into caring about the government procedures, we would have rejected it. Instead, with humor and intelligence and a subtle forcefulness, he invites us in and successfully helps us understand the stakes.
I saw this movie slightly before the election, and I now find myself unable to think of the film without placing it into its modern context. For a historical piece, this film is unabashedly contemporary, drawing very evident parallels between Lincoln’s struggle to obtain rights for a group of people with Obama’s struggles. The beauty of the film is that it works on a broad level by being so specific: it could be about any issue of rights, be it the right for gays to marry, the right for women to choose, the right for the poor to receive affordable medical treatment, the right for students to get affordable loan structures. Any indoctrinated oppression that continues to be held upon a group of people today could be applied to the struggle here. This is a film about how insanely difficult it is to do what is right. Lincoln’s choice to fight for the thirteenth amendment instead of merely settle in order to end the war cost Americans their lives in order to take the necessary steps to secure proper lives for others. He commits potentially impeachable offenses, risking his legacy in order to attain the legacy he desires. He cons, freewheels, bribes. His hands are not squeaky clean… and yet the ends justify the means. We don’t leave the theater bitching about how dirty politics are, we leave understanding the nature of checks and balances and how impossibly difficult it is to secure rights without “playing the game.” As someone who was baffled by government in high school, this is a notable achievement by itself. That Lincoln also creates a myriad of exceptional characters to care about, creates a gorgeous period setting, and remains so clearly contemporary on top of its intelligence and clarity of execution puts it in a class by itself. All men are created equal… but all films aren’t. This is one of the best films of the year and, for Spielberg, one of the high points in a remarkable career.