What happens when America’s most successful filmmaker, one of our greatest living playwrights, and the man whom many (though not I) consider our greatest living actor, come together to pay homage to America’s greatest president? Strangely, you get the kind of competent, perfectly honorable bit of film hagiography that is almost guaranteed to win awards, but which neither deepens our understanding of history nor advances the art of cinema. Respectful without being insightful, well-crafted but without creativity, and visually impressive without any real vision, Lincoln represents an impressive panoply of talent coming together to create the cinematic equivalent of a B+ term paper in AP History.
Written by Tony Kushner (Angels in America), drawing heavily on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, director Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln wisely avoids the standard full-life biopic route to focus instead on the last few months of President Lincoln’s life, and his achievement of the two greatest acts for which he is remembered: the abolishment of slavery, and the ending of the Civil War.
As Lincoln demonstrates, the two were related in more complicated ways than those of us with only a passing understanding of history and constitutional law may grasp: as the president (Daniel Day-Lewis) explains early, in one of the best speeches in the film, the Emancipation Proclamation and other steps Lincoln took to achieve freedom for former slaves were accomplished under the vague powers the Constitution grants a president at war, and therefore were of questionable legality. Furthermore, much of the tentative support for abolishing slavery—in Congress, and in the nation—was entirely motivated by a desire to end the war, which had already cost 600,000 lives. Therefore, as the film opens in late-1864, Lincoln considers it essential that a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery be passed in Congress before peace is officially reached with the (nearly beaten) rebel forces in the South.
The complicated political machinations are the best parts of Lincoln: the president and his allies are tasked with wrangling support amongst the warring factions in Congress, and, until they can, they are put in the terrible position of needing to actually prolong the war—and delay a peace delegation led by the vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley)—until they can round up enough votes to pass the Thirteenth Amendment in the deeply divided House of Representatives. (Today’s audiences will no doubt be shocked to realize that our modern Congressional sessions—which we are accustomed to thinking of as polarized and belicose—are remarkably civilized compared to the shouting matches and direct insults that passed for debate on the floor of the House in the 19th century.)
The “team of rivals” that works together to achieve the Thirteenth Amendment is a colorful group, and Lincoln employs a suitably stellar cast to bring them to life, including the excellent David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Lincoln’s closest ally; the venerable Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, founder of the Republican Party; and Mad Men’s Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. (There is also some slightly awkward comic relief from a team of lowlife proto-lobbyists—played by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson—who go around offering lame-duck congressmen administration jobs in exchange for their votes.)
It is Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens who nearly steals the movie, however, and perhaps he should have been allowed to: Stevens, a servant of the people who doesn’t particularly like them, and a lifelong crusader for racial equality, comes across as by far the most interesting character in the film: more than once, I found myself wishing I were watching a biography of this complicated man, and that surprising aspects of his motivation—and his personal life—had been fully explored, rather than saved for a brief and simplistic “twist” towards the end of the film.
But this shallow, surface-level treatment of fascinating characters and developments is par for the course in Lincoln, which feels at times like an historical reenactment—a special Civil War-edition of C-Span, perhaps—than a fully fleshed film. Nearly all of the scenes in the film takes place in dark, smoke-filled rooms, where ponderous men discuss weighty issues in highfalutin language: Kushner’s choice to structure the screenplay that way is honorable—if not one that plays to his wildly inventive strengths as a playwright—but it is an approach that is somewhat at war with the filmmaking style of Spielberg, for whom such chamber pieces are not a strong-suit. I am a tremendous fan of Steven Spielberg’s, but he is primarily an entertainer, one of our greatest purveyors of spectacle and Hollywood grandeur; though we can admire his restraint here, the cramping of his directing style (and the gauzy cinematography of his longtime director of photography, Janusz Kaminski) lends an unfortunate artificiality to what Kushner clearly intended to be gritty, realistic proceedings. (Spielberg’s similarly themed and structured Amistad suffered from the same problems.) I’m not sure he was the right director for this material. (I kept wishing for someone like Tomas Alfredson, whose Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy showed a marvelous eye for period detail and the ability to make the smoky conversations between dour men both engaging and convincing.)
So, apart from serving as a handsome and servicable—if simplistic—history lesson, Lincoln‘s real raison d’être is as a showcase for the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis. I’ve never been a particularly fan of the actor’s work—I find his mannered, method approach off-putting and frequently over-the-top—but he shows remarkable restraint here, and creates a character who is both convincing and charming. Abraham Lincoln is one of those giants of American history who dominates our cultural imagination but for whom we have little real feel: few photographs exist, but no film or recordings, of course, so the challenge of bringing this figure to convincing life should not be underestimated. Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is a stooped, shuffling giant who dominates a room more with quiet and intelligence than with stature and eloquence: a gentle, folksy raconteur with a sly sense of humor who relates as easily—or more easily—to common men as to his cabinet members. Admirably filling the vacuum of what Lincoln was actually like, Day-Lewis’s performance will no doubt become the definitive image of our 16th president.
At the same time, however, this impressive embodiment of Lincoln doesn’t feel like it’s much more than that: it is a marvellous and believable recreation—of the kind you’d see in a good one-man show—but it is not a great acting job. Day-Lewis looks perfect, and he has created a walk, and some mannerisms, and a voice, but it’s the effort of sustaining all of these pieces of the personification that we admire, not the performance itself. This is less Day-Lewis’s fault, however, than it is Spielberg’s and Kushner’s: whether it was from a reluctance to invent or from an overly-respectful impulse, Lincoln’s Lincoln is simply not a well-rounded character. Though we get a few personal moments between Abe and his wife (a miscast Sally Field, bringing little humanity to the somewhat awful figure of Mary Todd Lincoln), or Abe and his eldest son (a wasted Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Lincoln delivers us few real insights into the man behind the myth. In scene after scene, Abe comes into a room, listens to what everyone has to say, and then tells a story or delivers a speech that puts a folksy bow on whatever is under discussion. It is a peculiarly one-note performance in which we are not provided different aspects of the man, but the same aspect over and over. The first scene in which we encounter his gentle, weary wisdom is very effective, but the film becomes tiresome when we realize that’s all we’re going to get.
Finally, it should be noted that Lincoln is an “important issue” movie that ultimately fails to really grapple with the important issue at its core: the movie is about President Lincoln’s desire to eradicate the evil of slavery, but the film never truly faces or deals with that evil in any meaningful way. The pro-slavery contingents in the film—from Alexander Stephens to the Democrats in the House—are never treated as more than cardboard adversaries, and in failing to give voice to their beliefs Spielberg and Kushner neglect to do more than glance at how an entire society could build its economy on the dehumanization and enslavement of fellow human beings for three hundred years. It is a film about the debate, but we don’t really get the debate, not in a way that does justice to this seminal, paradigm-changing moment in American morality. One of the best performances in the film is also, unfortunately, one of the briefest: that of Gloria Reuben as Elizabeth Keckley, the former slave who became the seamstress and companion of Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley is the closest thing the film has to a black voice, but it is a very marginalized voice. We see her in the gallery of the House, reacting as the equality of her people is angrily debated by white men, but Reuben really only gets one substantial scene: a conversation with Abe, in which he admits that he doesn’t really know anything about black people. It’s a good scene—and Reuben is excellent in it—but Abe’s admission feels like a too-easy confession on the part of the filmmakers and the film itself.
I am hard on creators from whom I expect great things, and Lincoln disappoints by failing to bring the sophisticated writing of which Tony Kushner is capable, the depth of character for which Daniel Day-Lewis is known, or the emotional grandeur we have come to expect from Steven Spielberg. It is a competent, stately film that succeeds as a simple history lesson, but which ultimately fails to coalesce as art. It entertains without engaging, and impresses without being particularly moving or powerful. Like Richard Attenborough’s similarly worshipful 1982 biopic Gandhi, I fully expect Lincoln to win lots of awards, to be best remembered for the charming impersonation of its lead actor, and to otherwise fade from memory as the sort of well-regarded, well-intentioned movie that no one ever wants to watch again.