Lincoln just might be one of Steven Spielberg’s least Spielbergian films. I don’t say this as any particular knock against him or the film either. It is no secret that I am a fan of Spielberg and I consider him to have made several masterpieces, my favorites being Jaws, E.T., and A.I. There are so many great films in his canon though. However this one may be least typical. He is often complained of showing too much sentiment and being too telegraphed in his approach..... some feeling he panders too much to the masses. Perhaps last year’s War Horse was the most debated film in recent memory regarding this aspect. Lincoln however often prefers to view things from the periphery, and even at times dares to be boring. Yes Spielberg has attempted making films with historical perspective before: The Color Purple, Schinder’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich. But this one feels different and not so akin to those in that list.
Lincoln takes a look at the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, mainly as it focuses on his attempts to ban slavery through the passing of the 13th amendment. It is based upon the book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin and the script was adapted by Tony Kushner. This is not a story unfamiliar to us, as far as history goes. But, I found myself engaged in the proceedings far more than I expected. One of the film’s greatest strengths, is the way that it brought history to life for me. Lincoln, and the attempts to pass the amendment through political maneuverings and underhanded deals, feels very modern, as if things really haven’t changed that much in 150 years. Even though there is the burden of historical inevitability in films like this, somehow the script and the actors make the story suspenseful and prescient. I was incredibly surprised with how the film spends a good deal of time showing us Lincoln’s attempts to basically buy votes, at one time even exclaiming how he’s the President of the United States and SHOULD be able to achieve the buying of votes. Kushner’s script also allows for us to comprehend and understand Lincoln’s own self-doubt, as he admits on more than one occasion to not fully understanding if he has politically and legally overstepped his bounds. In another of the film’s most dramatic angles, we are brought into Lincoln’s very difficult moral conundrum of whether to postpone the Rebel surrender in order to allow time to pass the 13th amendment. It is this element in particular, that made the film very personal, as we realize the gravity of the stress and personal struggle which Lincoln faced on a daily basis.
As I mentioned earlier, Spielberg avoids much of what could be considered direct scenes of audience satisfaction in favor of oblique moments of poignancy. Yes at times, John Williams’s score swells and we see glimpses of the Spielberg that haters love to hate. For the most part though, Spielberg does not give the masses what they would expect. There are three cases of which I will mention. One, is the moment when the House of Representatives is tallying the final votes and instead of showing us the ensuing celebration, Spielberg cuts to a long scene of Lincoln alone in the White House. He soon hears bells off in the distance and we realize along with him what has just happened. Yet it is that quiet moment of solitude where the focus is laid, not on the outburst of emotion in the House of Representatives. Another moment where Spielberg subtly avoids cliché, is the scene of surrender at the Appomattox Courthouse. Instead of showing us a scene where Lee and Grant are in the house together, with the requisite protractedness and predictability, we are not shown any of this at all except a tip of the cap from Lee and the Union soldiers as Lee gets on his horse. The final moment I will discuss (and what appears to be somewhat controversial from some dialogue I have engaged in on the blogosphere) is the assassination of Lincoln, which is not filmed at all and instead the moment is filmed from Lincoln’s young son Tad’s point of view, as the announcement is made while he watches a play at a different theater that night. His ensuing display of emotion is the focus of attention, instead of what would likely have been a predictable moment of John Wilkes Booth’s shot and ensuing melee. I appreciated this point of view for the reason in particular that throughout the film, young Tad had been trying to vie for his father’s attention and it was never enough for him. His realization that his father may be dead and the focus on those left behind is consistent with the overarching tone of the film up until that point.
Spielberg also seems to have taken notes from William Wyler and Sydney Lumet. It is far more an actor’s film than a director’s, and both of those talented men were known for their ability to cultivate the elements necessary to allow for wonderful performances to come through in the actors. There are so many actors here that can chew the scenery. Daniel Day Lewis literally IS Abraham Lincoln as one would expect nothing less from him. Kushner’s script relies greatly upon jokes and stories that Lincoln tells, and although one could tire of such moments, I found them to be a great example of how a man like this has gotten to this position, through relating to people and learning from others. Sally Field as Mary Todd makes us feel the pain of a woman who can literally not let go of past failures. She obsesses over the death of her son Willie and is on the verge of a nervous breakdown for much of the film, brought on by anxiety and depression. That centerpiece argument between Lincoln and Mary Todd as they attack each other over the topic of their son Robert’s enlistment is a direct reminder of how much strain this family was under. There are others though, from the brevity provided by Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, to the stern condescension provided by David Strathairn, the film is loaded with lots of acting moments. Janusz Kaminski's low-light cinematography adds the right stylistic elements to a film shot mostly in dark, back rooms. It is not a flashy kind of work, but the photography allows a humble, knowing artistry to present itself.
This is a film that is not easy to do well. On one hand, it dares to be boring, enacting a chamber drama attitude toward a topic that the general public expects to be more bombastic and far reaching. I could see how if one does not pay distinct attention the whole time, one could lose one’s way. For those viewers looking for more artistic liberties to be taken on this topic, they will not find it here. It is a film that is remarkably balanced, often restrained, towing the fine line of historical accuracy, whilst maintaining a propulsive, yet understated brand of entertainment.