Lincoln the man, the politician, the professor, the father, the martyr, and the myth: director Steven Spielberg’s extraordinary new biopic (based on the book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin) reveals the many layers of its subject with the grace and solemnity of a battlefield hymn. With cinematic shape-shifter Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role, Lincoln is the most powerful and profound and deeply moving Hollywood dramatization of the American icon’s life since 1939—when Henry Fonda donned the famous hat and beard in John Ford’s peerless classic Young Mr. Lincoln.
From War Horse’s sumptuous green valleys to Lincoln’s traditionally high-contrast interiors, it’s evident that Spielberg yearns to echo the majesty of that late cinematic deity. But where Ford began Lincoln’s journey, depicting his humble origins as an Illinois litigator, Spielberg finishes it. By early 1865—the waning days of the Civil War—that promising youth had grown into a weary elder statesman. If his presidency and life were fatefully truncated by a gunshot at Ford’s Theater, Spielberg’s film reminds us that his legacy lives in his immortal doctrines and words.
The film begins with a fierce skirmish in the pouring rain and mud. But the war on the battlefield is basically over (spoiler: The South lose). A new conflict is brewing in the halls of Congress, wherein Lincoln seeks to ratify the 13th Amendment, thereby lawfully and constitutionally abolishing slavery. Dissension among rival partisans and a potential Southern peace negotiation combine to complicate the procedure of ratification. Lincoln’s stressed-out Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), is tasked with procuring the twenty congressional votes needed to reach a two-thirds consensus. Assisted by three colorful lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson), (dis)honest Abe exercises the chicanery intrinsic in democratic politics, suggesting that lawmaking is essentially a game of wheeling and dealing.
The film depicts a veritable hen House of Representatives, where squabbling debaters hurl insults about in eloquent 19th century vernacular. Occasionally, I worried the movie would wallow excessively in the legislature, but the complex domesticity of the White House aptly dispensed those concerns. As the screwy Mary Lincoln (Molly to her beloved), Sally Field plays inexorable emotionality to Abe’s modest stoicism. As her husband is too mandatorily stolid to express the sorrow he feels for the thousands of sons lost during his administration, Mary is the more outwardly bereaved that their own son Willie died three years earlier. It’s been speculated that Mary suffered from bipolar disorder, and her ailment is visualized emphatically in a single jarring edit; her inconsolable sadness is wiped away by a demented grin.
The nearly wordless rapport between Abe and his youngest son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), is perhaps the most affecting; it attests to the paternalism discernable in the President’s overall nature, towards his family, of course, but his people as well. One particularly striking tableau sits Lincoln in an Oval Office rocking chair with Tad on his lap. Like a baroque painting, father and child cuddle over a picture book as lustrous sunbeams from the window pierce the blackness and illuminate their intimacy. It’s an image worthy of art galleries and recalls the famous statue that stands in Richmond, Virginia to this day. Lincoln’s discordant relationship with his oldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a would-be Yankee soldier, feels shoehorned and melodramatic in comparison.
Nevertheless, Day-Lewis gives a career-highlight performance. His eyes sunken, his shoulders heavy, his steps short, his voice high and courtly, the two-time Oscar winner channels the real man as best as historical records describe. But showing his figure in wistful silhouette from behind, Lincoln also memorializes a symbol, a mythic insignia of a struggle that still remains largely unfinished. In addition, Spielberg and Day-Lewis make the President a raconteur: he doesn’t really talk; he orates. His incipient thoughts seem to roll around his head like musket balls before flowing forth elegantly. Besides one hilariously aggravated cabinet member, who’s had enough of Abe’s speechifying, the whole world takes pause to listen. Day-Lewis’ performance speaks to Lincoln’s wisdom, melancholy, sense of humor, and larger than life aura.
Actually, the whole stock of characters is fantastic. Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Stuhlberg has a significant role as an ambivalent congressman trembling before his cohorts. Speaking for the South in a tense but mannered confrontation between belligerents (a more civilized assemblage than wartime Congress, I must say), Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) imparts succinctly and stately the Southern cause: not racism, not enslavement, but preserving a way of life, a culture (few Confederate soldiers actually owned slaves). Lincoln’s strongest ally in the House is club-footed abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), whose principled aggression is public from the podium, but the extent of whose dedication is only revealed to us behind closed doors.
Beautifully shot by Janusz Kamiński in nuanced close-ups and vivid period imagery, underlined by John Williams’ courageous marching-song score (reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan) and Tony Kushner’s dialogue cribbed in spirit from Civil War letters and diaries, Lincoln is a great film. Although Spielberg’s movies are often so maudlin they appear filmed through a pane of sugar glass, his latest is an epic achievement that’s vastly expressive through images while celebrating the might and endurance of the spoken word as well. It was said of the President on his deathbed, “Now he belongs to the ages.” Though he’s long been quiet, Lincoln insinuates that somehow he teaches us still.