Silver Screen: Lincoln ****
Abraham Lincoln may be the most mythologized American. George Washington is on the $1 bill and is bestowed with goofy apocrypha about chopping down trees and being unable to lie, but it’s Lincoln who’s been transformed by history into the Platonic ideal of American success: a rural boy born to humble beginnings, a self-taught lawyer straining his eyes in childhood to read books by candlelight, a stooped giant with an iconic hat and beard who united a nation. Washington never wrote a speech we memorize in grade school, and besides, George died an old man on his sick bed, while Abe exited the world in the kind of spectacularly tragic fashion that incites mythopoeia. If you want legendary status as a great American, you must die by bullet or car crash.
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln aims not to demystify the sixteenth president but to understand him on human terms. Spielberg is trying to rescue Lincoln from legendary status, and in doing so actually reinvigorates the myth. Lincoln’s feats of philosophy, governance, and moral leadership are rendered more formidable when recast as the actions of one struggling man rather than the preordained miracles of a titan.
And so the movie finds its strengths in smallness. Star Daniel Day-Lewis describes Lincoln not in sweeping oratory but in minute gestures, while screenwriter Tony Kushner, working from the book by acclaimed historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, confines the action to a single month and one definitive struggle. It saves the movie from the fate of the rote biopic that casts multiple actors to play the same subject across a range of time and transforms a complex life into a SportsCenter highlight reel of accomplishments.
Spielberg’s Lincoln, weary from a war he’s nearly won at a cost he can barely conceive, spies an opportunity. His recent reelection has established his mandate, while scores of fellow Republicans and several Democrats in the House of Representatives have been voted out and have but a few weeks to serve as lame ducks before ending their political careers. Lincoln sees this brief window of time as perhaps his final chance to abolish slavery and write new freedoms into the Constitution.
The Civil War still rages-- we catch an ugly glimpse of it in the film’s opening scene, where Spielberg casts the fighting as an inglorious, muddy melee-- but the movie’s core conflict is based in wonky political machinations more familiar to Aaron Sorkin than Kushner or Spielberg. In fact, it plays an awful lot like the nineteenth-century version of The West Wing, as Lincoln’s secretary of state William Seward (David Strathairn) conscripts a trio of political operatives to use whatever means of bribery and coercsion they must to sway the outgoing representatives to cast perhaps the most controversial vote in American history.
These political operatives, played with brilliant humor by a great set of character actors including John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and James Spader, are surprisingly analogous to the horse-traders of today like David Axelrod or Karl Rove. Spader’s cantankerous, foul-mouthed hatchet man is like the great granddaddy of Rahm Emanuel, and their machinations are the sort that occur sub-table and rear-door.
While his minions employ petty tactics to achieve his noble goal, Lincoln must contend with weighty matters both personal and political. Even though the Union’s victory is imminent, the war could be protracted at the cost of thousands more lives if Lincoln cannot act decisively. Meanwhile, his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) has still not recovered from her grief over the loss of their middle child and insists her husband keep their eldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) away from the war, even as the boy is determined he must join the conflict to save his own honor.
Lincoln is a tremendous, moving piece of filmmaking. Kushner’s script, Spielberg’s direction, and Day-Lewis’s performance achieve an incredible synchronicity to make it one of the great historical portrayals of all time. Day-Lewis is known for his outsized, bombastic characters, Gangs of New York’s Bill the Butcher or There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview, but his unassailably great performance as Lincoln is a study in understatement. He speaks in a high, soft voice and walks with a stooped gait that emphasizes his stature yet nearly makes tangible the burdens he bears with him. An early scene shows the great man on his hands and knees on the White House floor as he tends to a fire, totally unself-conscious of his supplicant position yet able to conjure up a fiery strength when he has a point that needs making. He’s given to wordy, philosophical answers, instructive anecdotes, and gentle humor. His greatness is highlighted by the fact that he never once tries to assert it.
Day-Lewis is joined by an exceptional ensemble of supporting players. Aside from Field and to a lesser degree Gordon-Levitt, the movie is populated almost entirely by character actors, and it’s a terrific lineup: Strathairn, Hawkes, Spader, and Nelson, but also Hal Holbrook, Michael Stuhlbarg, Walton Goggins, and Jared Harris. Among all of them, it’s Spader who steals the most scenes, while Tommy Lee Jones, as the fierce and formidable abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, is so dominant he begs for his own picture. This impressive collection of actors, Jones and Spader in particular, have great fun with Kushner’s script, which is chock full of eloquent zingers.
Alas, this is Steven Spielberg we’re talking about here, so of course the movie cannot end well. After two hours and fifteen minutes of elevating the film’s hero through subtlety and rendering these epic conflicts intimate, he’s unable to resist tacking on his trademark unnecessary coda to bluntly explain to the audience exactly what they should think. Recall the stones at the end of Schindler’s List, or the “tell me I’m a good man” frame story of Saving Private Ryan.
There’s not one but two graceful moments when Lincoln could bow out, first an interesting revelation in a quiet scene with Thaddeus Stevens, and shortly thereafter a busy moment in the White House when Lincoln must end the day’s business and put on his finery for a night out at the theater. It’s a brief scene that practically screams “foreshadowing!” Still, it would have been a fitting end. But Spielberg doesn’t credit his audience with enough imagination to tie everything we’ve just seen with Lincoln’s historical end. He cannot resist showing us, in high melodramatic fashion, even though it breaks the pre-established structure of the film and serves no purpose whatsoever.
Even worse are the closing moments when Spielberg flashes back to a fiery speech that is-- prepare yourselves here-- ghosted over the image of an eternally burning flame. Actual, literal flame. This is the same director who concluded Saving Private Ryan, the most patriotic movie of the 1990s, by literally waving a flag, as though the movie itself wasn’t two and a half hours of metaphorical flag-waving.
But this last-second fumbling needn’t spoil the rest of the movie, which is one of the year’s best. Just think of the final minutes as a reminder of the staid myth of Lincoln that the rest of the film has so successfully usurped with a complex, conflicted, and eminently human American hero.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.