LINCOLN Review: Honest, Abe’s Film is Great
According to IMDb, Abraham Lincoln has been portrayed in movies and television shows over 300 times, by everyone from Henry Fonda (1939’s Young Mr. Lincoln) to Louis C.K. (the 2012 season of Saturday Night Live). Add to that the countless number of less-than-professional portrayals of the 16th president of the United States, in everything from school plays to local retail commercials (you know, those dreadful Presidents Day Sale-tacular! commercials churned out by used car dealers, mattress warehouses, and surplus carpet marts), and it would seem the Lincoln market has been over-saturated.
This creates a challenge for a filmmaker looking to tackle Lincoln. Audiences have been so exposed to The Rail-Splitter, they have such a collective preconception of his appearance, speech, and mannerisms, as well as his history and myth, that another telling of even part of his life might seem excessive.
So leave it to director Steven Spielberg to give us not one more Lincoln, but four more, and in one film – Lincoln. And leave it to actor Daniel Day-Lewis to seamlessly transition among the varied faces of Lincoln with an unrivaled mastery of his craft.
The first Lincoln is the President, the man who is trying to pass what will become one of the most important pieces of legislation in the history of the country: the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which will abolish slavery. The second Lincoln is the Commander-in-Chief, the leader of the Union Army who is trying to bring the bloody Civil War to an end. The third and fourth Lincolns are more intimate: one is a Husband, the other is a Father.
And in the closing months of Lincoln’s life, his four worlds don’t collide so much as they join forces to put one of our greatest leaders to one of history’s greatest tests of political and emotional strength.
Spielberg introduces us first to the Commander-in-Chief in a way that our modern minds can best relate to him: as a celebrity. Lincoln is speaking with troops who gather before him and clamor to talk to him and tell him their stories. One even asks Lincoln how tall he is. And Lincoln sits there, holding court and asking soldiers their names and taking great interest in every word they have to say. It’s the same type of clamor – albeit subdued and without cameras and microphones – that you might see at a red carpet event. What gives the scene such punch is the absence of press. This isn’t some photo opportunity; this is a leader of an army who is genuinely interested in his men. The scene also establishes the kind of man Lincoln is – thoughtful, deliberate, and considerate of details.
No sooner is his Commander-in-Chief hat off, his Father hat is on. His younger son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), has fallen asleep on the floor and Lincoln, like all dads, must scoop up the boy and get him to bed.
But it’s not only the juxtaposition of responsibilities that Lincoln must manage, it’s how he handles how those roles intertwine that is something to behold.
Lincoln’s wife, Mary (Sally Field), is a savvy first lady, but she suffers from some type of psychological condition (depression/bipolar disorder) that not only puts a burden on Lincoln as a matter of daily course, it exacerbates the pressure she puts on him because of her maternal concerns that their older son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), wants to join the army and fight in the Civil War. Lincoln is worried about that too, of course, but in one scene, Robert accuses his father of being more worried about having to manage Mary than about his own son’s safety. Take that, dad.
And now the Civil War is fully entwined into Lincoln’s personal life as well as his political one, but the political tale here is of greater interest because of its role in getting the 13th Amendment passed. While his advisors, led by Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), want Lincoln to shelve the Bill until Republicans replace lame-duck democrats (and thus guarantee enough votes in the House), Lincoln’s concern is that if the war ends before the Amendment is passed, the courts will repeal his Emancipation Proclamation and he would lose the support of the slave states that he needs to ratify the amendment. (Oh civics, I knew ye for the test.)
This delicate timing requires Lincoln to delay the arrival of Confederate delegates (who have a peace proposal), and it requires his staff to hire political operatives who are charged with getting the necessary number of votes to pass the amendment (even if their methods require a certain … shall we say … dishonesty).
In the end, everything seems to work out for the best. Robert joins the Army but Lincoln has him assigned directly to General Grant (Jared Harris), keeping him out of harm’s way; the Amendment passes; war ends. While there is no medical relief for Mary, at least the pressures of the day have been alleviated, which can only be good for her.
There is not a single bad performance in this film, and at the head of that class is Day-Lewis. I was watching Morning Joe one morning and Doris Kearns Goodwin was a guest. This film was based on part of her book, Team of Rivals. During the show, Goodwin, having seen the film, noted that it was as if she had actually witnessed Abraham Lincoln himself, and I cannot (humbly) agree more. Every single thing Day-Lewis does – be it a line, a gesture, a glance, whatever – is done with remarkable affect. And that realization is nearly instantaneous. When you see him and hear him, your first thought is “There’s Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln,” which is immediately followed by, “There’s Lincoln.”
The supporting cast is very good. While I’m not as enthusiastic about Field as others are, she is excellent, as is everyone else to varying degrees (except perhaps Gordon-Levitt, who is rather bland). But the true scene-stealers are Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and James Spader as W. N. Bilbo. In the interest of full disclosure, I had heard hype about Jones in advance of seeing the film, and at first I was puzzled. Jones is dangerously close to becoming another Samuel L. Jackson in that his characters, despite period or relevance, all sound and feel the same. For Jackson, the root character is Jules from Pulp Fiction; for Jones, it’s Gerard from The Fugitive. But in Lincoln, it’s not the bombastic moments where Jones shines (and oh, does he have them – the House debate scenes were wonderfully entertaining and akin to watching a C-SPAN highlight reel), it’s his quieter moments … particularly his final scene … that are just so good.
As for Spader, he plays one of the three political operatives (along with the wonderful John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) trying to procure votes to get the Amendment passed. He owns every scene he’s in, and he rises to the occassion in his scene with Day-Lewis.
Of course you know how the film ends, with that fateful trip to the theater. However, you might not know how the ending is presented, and since there has been some controversy about that ending, I think it only fair to call SPOILER ALERT, in case you simply want to judge for yourself.
Lincoln is rushed out of the house as he is late for the theater. Cut to a play being staged, where you expect to see Lincoln in his box. Instead, Spielberg shows a man rushing onstage and announcing to the crowd that President Lincoln has been shot. This was not the theater where Lincoln was a patron, but rather the theater where Tad was was a patron. And this is how the boy, and we, learn of his father’s demise. Lincoln is ultimately shown on his deathbed, and after he passes, we are shown a portion of his second inaugural address.
The argument that I’ve heard is this: the shot of Lincoln leaving the White House is really good, and we all know how it ends, so why not simply end it with that really good shot? But for me, that would have been the easy way out. It also would have been easy to show Lincoln being shot. But two of the Lincolns, Lincoln the President and Commander-in-Chief, were shot by a man who opposed the abolition of slavery, and the third Lincoln was shot while playing Husband. Adding the element of how the loss of Lincoln the Father impacted Tad was certainly the most dramatic choice, but it also brought that fourth Lincoln to a close, something that needed to be done.
Spileberg’s ability to properly weigh and balance the four Lincolns, and Day-Lewis’ ability to transition among them, have raised the bar on all future interpretations of the 16th President, and has forever changed the mind’s eye view on the look, the mannerisms, and the man.