2012, Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, Daniel Day Lewis, Gettysburg Address by miniature lincoln in a candle flame, Lincoln, radical republicans, Steven Spielberg, Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones, Tony Kushner
Lincoln – Art 2/5 Ent 4/5 Worth 5/5
The problem with liking a film such as Lincoln is that it’s just so goddamn easy. It’s easy for audiences to like, and the palpable drama surrounding the significance of our most venerated President after George Washington is an easy sell for Steven Spielberg (similar in a few ways to how hard it is to take issue with Schindler or Private Ryan … ). It feels like a guilty pleasure, as far as my liking Lincoln goes, in how my conscience informs me that this is mere Spielbergian Instagram-History tripe. Yet the drama constructed by playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner depicting the legal abolition of slavery with Daniel Day-Lewis capturing the essence of Honest Abe is anything but easy to dismiss, and despite many shortcomings, stands out with some extraordinary elements.
Lincoln is a film that attempts to capture that essence of the 16th President of the United States, and especially his legacy, as a contribution to our national mythology. The opening shot slowly drags us in our idolatry from behind his back, presiding over black Union troops in their complaints in the rain, to turn and face him in his humble and unpretentious reality. Kushner drifted on subject matter before finally settling on the passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery and served as an apotheosis for the hundreds of thousands who perished in the Civil War. Standing in the way of its passage is the Copperhead faction in Congress who sympathized with the South for economic reasons, and opposed Lincoln’s wartime powers by every inch of seizure.
Tommy Lee Jones delivers an historic first in his positive portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens, long maligned by historians of the Dunning School and rebel scum inhabiting the modern South. The difference between the Union and Confederacy, or Republicans and Democrats is only window dressing here, as Stevens and Lincoln have a more significant difference that we’re told by Kushner speaks less on the history and more on a timeless issue of radical change vs. compromised change, specifically on emancipation. A key exchange between Lincoln and Stevens in a basement meeting draws attention. Abe claims if we’d done it your way, we’d never have brought in the border and Western States, and the war would have been lost, revealing the film’s dramatic conceit, which favors Voltaire’s aphorism that the perfect is the enemy of the good.
Like many Spielberg flicks, this one has a panoply of high caliber actors, and fittingly a man of the highest caliber in the title role. Day-Lewis easily overshadows every past attempt (though there’ve been interestingly few as large as this, suggestive of Lincoln’s greater importance to our current age than those immediately following him), and makes every future attempt pointless. His physical resemblance was great enough, which is no easy accomplishment, genetics being more decisive than makeup, but his construction of a personality we know mostly from our money is being praised by historians for its surprising accuracy. His Lincoln breathes life into the affable autodidact icon. His stoic stature and resolve are unaffected by those surrounding him. He carries the enormous weight of the world easily, because his soul has been beaten down all it can be, and he’s a happy pursuer of his ironclad goals. Day-Lewis taking over the role from Liam Neeson was a bit of cosmic mercy.
In his supporting role as Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones offers a worthy second fiddle, but his manner is as equally jovial and sarcastic as most of his roles, No Country for Old Men aside. John Hawkes, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook already looked like Civil War re-enactors before winning their roles; Jackie Earle Haley executes a sympathetic testimony for a dying society aloof to its injustice as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens; Lee Pace plays Fernando Wood, the flamboyant Copperhead and thrower of invective, with a luster that recalls Clancy O’Connor’s portrayal of Edward Rutledge in HBO’s John Adams miniseries. Sally Field is … adequate, but I can only guess she’s been brought out of exile into the land of medical informercials because she bore a resemblance to Mary Todd, as other actors resembled their figures here.
Do many great works of historical fiction escape reliance on the big milestones and great men with long Wikipedia pages? Not as many as those which hug the icons, I would wager. Spielberg’s avoidance of the big markers in history were all pretty forgettable: 1941, Empire of the Sun, Amistad. Anybody familiar with Angels in America or Munich, two other films Kushner penned, knows his ability to sculpt into a beautifully harrowing drama what was once a factual, dusty, and ultimately dead history page. It should come as a surprise to some that despite the credit being given to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” (the widely popular history tome about a Lincoln administration which embraced diversity of thought), this entire film encompasses the events of no more than 4 pages in that enormous book. She actually deserves more credit for advising Daniel Day-Lewis on the man she’d studied in depth, visiting historic locations with him to begin his character assimilation process. To think Spielberg insisted on the book rights prior to it being published is a mark of the intellectual bloat and superficiality of Hollywood.
And yet we have a film that beautifully translates the spirit of Kearns’ entire book, and the legacy of a world-historic figure into a 150 minute film. So obviously this film required more than competently depicting a towering figure of American history to saunter into the Oscars and take home all the statues, which it is very likely to do. What we’re witnessing here isn’t hugely different, however: Daniel Day-Lewis is at this point inarguably a towering figure of cinematic history. Is there anybody convinced he ISN’T going to win the Oscar for Best Actor, or that his wasn’t a performance that drew anything short of pure awe? In future decades, will people be speaking of this role as they do some of Marlon Brando’s signature roles? (i.e. Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, Godfather..) I predict with some confidence that they will. Between Bill the Butcher, Daniel Plainview, and Abe Lincoln, all cut from a quintessential American archetype forged in the 19th century, Day-Lewis grew as an actor as his characters had him drawing down in color and flare, growing in subtle tendency.
One problem arises over the historical truth behind this film’s carved arc. We’d have passed the 13th Amendment with or without cajoling the recalcitrant Congress fairly soon. Slavery was for all intents and purposes done as an institution by the time we passed it, and it was only a matter of whether or not the Union was counter-intuitively willing to perpetuate it militarily after achieving victory, which isn’t as absurd a possibility as it sounds. In the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s presidency and life, Stevens and other radicals would oversee Radical Reconstruction in further Amendments, including the 14th with its Equal Protection that has factored so heavily into our history, and continues to do so today with Gay Marriage heading to the Supreme Court soon. So in reality, the perfect was well within sight despite this film’s insistence on the good‘s superiority.
The formal problems in any Spielberg film apply here, as they always do. The score by John Williams is annoyingly cliched high schmaltz, underwhelming aesthetically, and delivered insultingly to tutor your mood and emotion. Janusz Kamiński’s camera has, like I said above, an Instagram filter in it that drains the color of history, adding dust for the awe and coolness of it all. James Spader’s oafish vote wrangler and Bruce McGill as Edwin Stanton provide the very Spielbergian need for cheeky but pointless comic relief cuteness in a serious film. Trust me Steve-O, your films are sweet and callow enough as it is, you don’t need to candy coat this pill.
These negative factors are surmountable. Daniel Day-Lewis is a veritable genius. He singularly lifts this otherwise above-average production into the ether. This is him in top form. History and politics take a back seat here, and the drama and mythology is what matters. Spielberg’s fawning adoration for the icon can make you queasy, but all things considered, there are few people worthier of such idolatry.
P.S. : “Lincoln” comes from the Roman name for a city in Britannia called “Lindum Colonia”, which between Gaelic and Latin, respectively, means “Pool Colony”.