Beth and I finally saw Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln last night, something we’ve been planning to do at least twice a week since the film opened three months ago. Anchored by a strong lead performance and solid supporting work from a sea of recognizable character actors, Lincoln is Spielberg’s best film in a decade.
I know a few people who can’t stand Spielberg films because of their overt sentimentality. The director artificially elevates scenes, characters, events and moments to the point of head-shaking unreality through his use of music, lighting and the camera. He also highlights stilted dialog in moments of grand pomposity designed to tell a viewer to pay attention because This Is Important. But by golly if it doesn’t work much of the time. Spielberg is a master manipulator and while I often recognize these heightened moments–thankfully Spielberg gets one of the “worst” out of the way in the first five minutes of Lincoln–I find myself looking past or even being swept along with some of them. I have no trouble enjoying a movie with a beating heart, even if that heart is sometimes pumping sugar syrup.
As I watched Lincoln, one thing that stuck out to me was the set decoration. The world of the film is incredibly detailed, but something felt just a bit off to me. It wasn’t the meticulous, proper placement, brand and color choices of a Wes Anderson film, nor was it the slavish everything-in-its place including proper stationary in unopened drawers of something like David Fincher’s Zodiac. I realized that everything looked like an authentic museum reproduction of what this must have looked like at the time. That is to say, many of the decorative bits lining the shelves and cluttering the tables look unused. For example, President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) meets with Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) in a kitchen at the White House. The room is filled with pots hanging from the ceiling, plates in the cabinets and food and cooking utensils covering the table, but it looks like someone placed them all out there to be seen, not used. It’s as if someone was making a full-scale diorama of an 1865 kitchen using actual artifacts and they needed to display everything they had while attempting to make it look like these 150 year old pieces had just been used hours ago. It’s not incredibly distracting, but it did strike me as odd.
Perhaps the problem is that I am too “close” to the subject matter. As a student of history, (currently living in the south) I have always been fascinated by the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, particularly the events surrounding his assassination. I’ve recently gained an even greater interest in the history and inner-workings of congress in the early years of the nation (spurred by my reading a biography of the greatest man never to be elected president, three-time Speaker of the House, Henry Clay). I sincerely hope congress was at least a little bit like Spielberg shows the House of Representatives to be here, with “gentlemen” making speeches and hurling eloquent insults at each other while still taking the time to persuade, finagle and compromise in order to create the policies that would shape the nation, hopefully for the better.
I must admit that even though I am somewhat familiar with the era, the film did drag a bit in the opening hour as we meet several of these characters and try to figure out just who they are, what political party they are affiliated with and most importantly, who’s side they are on with regards to the abolition vote. This may be why half of the audience walked out of the theater less than 30 minutes into the film (to be fair, there were only eight total people in the theater besides me and Beth, and the four who left, at least in the dark, looked like people who may not have had the appreciation or attention span for well-crafted historical drama). The film does settle into a groove once we know all of the players and have a clear goal in mind: get the votes necessary to pass the 13th Amendment in the House by January 31, 1865.
In order to achieve this goal, the president enlists Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) to hire three men to “work on” those congressmen who might be swayed to vote yes with the more liberal republicans that are Lincoln’s backbone in the House. The men, played by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson go about their duties in comical fashion (at least on Spader’s part), something that seems a bit out of place in what is ostensibly an epic drama about ending slavery. It is not, however, out of place in a Spielberg film. I enjoyed Spielberg giving the film a lighter note here and there, including the sillier moments with congressmen played by Walton Goggins, Michael Stuhlbarg and The Wire‘s A-hole Lt. Marimow, Boris McGiver (also, David Costabile, AKA Breaking Bad‘s Gale Boetticher, is in this movie, and he’s great).
Some might argue that the light-heartedness undercuts the gravity of the story or the subject matter. Perhaps, but I’d argue that A) This is a (Spielberg) movie and B) life is funny, even when it’s tragic and trying. The tone of the film as a whole is reflected in Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Abraham Lincoln. He’s not the stoic, serious man that we might think based on the portrayals we’ve seen in the past, the photographs of a man older-than-he-looks, or our beliefs about what kind of man might be needed to weather the storm of the Civil War. The film’s Lincoln is a loving father and husband with strong convictions about the proper course for the nation’s future. He’ll just as soon tell a joke or lay on the floor with his son Tad as he will give orders to his staff. He’s not afraid to get his hands (at least a little) dirty, and he’s clearly conflicted about whether he is abusing his power in pursuit of the abolition of slavery.
If there is one criticism of Lincoln, the character, it might be how he is written. This Lincoln is prone to telling stories and spouting anecdotes to entertain, or more often, to make a point. Viewers might almost get a little tired of Lincoln pulling out some tale of his past or from the history books. In fact, Secretary of War Stanton (Bruce McGill) leaves the room when he sees Lincoln warming up. I think this trait adequately rounds the character as an intelligent, thoughtful man, though the guy sure has a lot of stories.
Beth made the observation that perhaps Lincoln is a Christ figure, telling parables and living a life of unimpeachable virtue on the way to becoming the savior of his nation, and to being killed. I believe that’s there if you want it, or if you want to argue about it, but it doesn’t diminish the portrayal. Even though Lincoln is a revered figure, he’s may not be deserving of such a level of admiration. Still, why make a movie about Abraham Lincoln the jerk? Just try to be true to the historic record without going overboard. As the film suggests, he was a man who was a perfect fit for the time and circumstances in which he was born but he was still a man.
All of the supporting performances in the film are quite strong. Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln) have both been highly praised for their supporting turns. Jones has at least two or three really nice scenes, one of them with Field. He brings his weathered persona to the character and plays Stevens as an intelligent and dedicated man who knows what to say and when and how to say it. History has painted Mary Todd Lincoln as a pitiable figure, reduced to depression and driven to insanity by the loss of her husband and two sons. Field plays Mary as surprisingly self-aware. Clearly suffering throughout the film, Mary mentions that she worries she will be thought of as the crazy wife who made Lincoln’s time in the White House all the more difficult. I think it’s refreshing to see Mary as more of a human. Apart from her conversation with Jones, Field’s role isn’t especially flashy. She does have a sort of silly “go get ’em, tiger” moment when she is the one who tells her husband that he needs to get those extra votes himself, but otherwise, she’s simply there as Lincoln’s loyal, devoted wife.
Not faring quite as well is the Lincolns’ relationship with eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). His story seems a bit shoehorned in and underdeveloped, and it doesn’t exactly earn a somewhat predictable “important” moment when Robert and his father go to a veteran’s hospital. Also, for as visceral as the cap on that scene is, it has little bearing on Robert’s journey for the rest of the film. I suppose it wouldn’t have been enough to have Robert simply show up here and there, however, I don’t think the film would suffer from his absence. Still, it doesn’t suffer greatly from his presence either, and his inclusion does add a certain “slice of life” quality to this film.
Also somewhat underdeveloped, though important to the plot of the film is a storyline involving three Confederate Commissioners (including a well cast Jackie Earle Haley as CSA Veep Alexander Stephens and a non-speaking Gregory Itzin, of 24 fame). They travel north, they meet with Ulysses S. Grant (played by Mad Men‘s Jared Harris, trying on an accent), and then they just kind of hang out as a threat to the abolition amendment (people won’t vote to pass it if they know peace is close at hand). Maybe I just felt these characters (and their stories) needed more time to develop because they are played by recognizable actors who seemed like they needed more to do.
I’ve already praised the depiction of the House of Representatives, but I do want to mention the notable separation of the Executive and Legislative branches. For as much speechifying and storytelling as he does, Abraham Lincoln is confined almost entirely to the White House, or his carriage. He meets with his cabinet, he sends and receives telegrams, but only rarely does he get “into the trenches” for this congressional battle. Obviously, this is probably the way it really worked, but you half expect Lincoln to appear on the floor of the House and wrap everything up in a speech that assures victory. This is not so (and not realistic), however. The climactic vote is left in the hands of those who have fought for it (Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens & Co.), and those who have opposed it (Pushing Daisies‘ Lee Pace as Fernando Wood and Peter McRobbie as George Pendleton).
Though the vote is squeezed for drama, with our who’s-who of character actors being called one by one and various characters writing “12 votes to win,” “8 votes to win,” “6 votes to win” just so we know how important this is, I think it works well. The vote is intercut with Lincoln in the White House reading with his son Tad. When the vote finally comes in, Spielberg plays the revelation quietly with Lincoln looking out of his office window (with the sun streaming in, as is a requirement for every window in this film) and hearing the tolling of the bells. The moment may be sweet and sentimental, but I think it works. Spielberg has continued to perfect his craft with Lincoln, and he has given us a film that celebrates a great American and one of his great victories. Obviously, the triumphalism (and sentimentality) must be tempered with knowledge of everything, good or bad, that has happened in the nearly 150 years since the passage of the 13th Amendment, but in its own world and its own limited time frame, Lincoln is a success. As with Zero Dark Thirty–another of the year’s best films, and one that I think is worth comparing to Lincoln–we’re not let down by knowing the ending to Lincoln before it begins, though perhaps unlike that film, we’re more inclined to cheer along.