Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Directed by Steven Spielberg.
There are two things going on in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. There is first the portrayal of a beloved and legendary President, humorous and compassionate and accessible. And there is the unfolding of an enormous compromise of great import as brokered by the only man capable, it seems, of pulling it off. More weight is given to this second aspect of the film, presenting family life and personal issues as backdrop to the strain on a man trying to make lasting change as a nation’s leader, rather than presenting political life as the backdrop for stressful family issues, of which there are more than a few.
There is not a weak performance among the film’s many notable actors. Daniel Day-Lewis, an actor I’m not especially fond of, does an excellent job as the larger-than-life Abraham Lincoln, offering the President as a man unafraid to share passions and vulnerabilities in matters personal and political. His upper-register vocal interpretation of Lincoln’s voice is a thing of tense, tenuous beauty, and there is an amazing cadence in his delivery of Lincoln’s conversations with advisers behind closed doors and with the everyday people he encounters. In one quiet scene, the President converses with two peon-level telegraph operators in the White House, late at night. There is something big and important to be communicated to Ulysses Grant, and in the middle of figuring out what he wants the message to be, he connects with these telegraphers in a way that clearly makes them feel valued and privileged at the same time. The kind of magical grace that Lincoln touches others with could be comically Jesus-like even in the deftest hands, but moments like this are handled with such humanity and sympathy that you can feel it yourself, this weird sense that you in the theater seat are lucky just to be in the company of this man.
Tommy Lee Jones as representative Thaddeus Stevens and David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward are the other standout performances. Jones presents Stevens as old and tottery, an object of ridicule by opponents in the House, while Strathairn offers Seward as smart and loyal, to his job if not exactly to his boss. A hardcore abolitionist, Stevens is as much an obstacle to the Thirteenth Amendment’s passing as those Congressmen who vocally oppose the change to the Constitution. In one of my favorite movie scenes this year, Stevens seems physically to wrestle with his own sense of right and wrong as his opponents try to take advantage of his idealism.
The look and feel of this film are the sort that I often dislike. It has a very television-like sense of framing, and the score is grand, sweeping, and dramatic. Somehow it works for me, perhaps because I like the juxtaposition of the big music and visuals over what are dramatically small moments. It is a very talky movie, and the overly cinematic look combines with the heavy orchestration to remind us that these moments of whispered conversations are the levers that moved our nation. I have seen small memorials, and they can be profoundly inspiring. But there is a time for a plaque on a wall and there is a time for a 555-foot-tall obelisk, and my sense is that Spielberg is trying to make the film version of the latter.
If I have one complaint about Lincoln, it is that there is so much contained in each line of dialogue that at times the best one can do is ride along with its meter and melody just to get a sense of what its feeling is. Of course, one wants also to hear the meanings of these conversations and to follow the logical paths they take, but to do that for the whole film requires multiple viewings. I agree with two friends who independently told me that when the film was over, they immediately knew they needed to see it again.
I look forward to seeing it again, because it is an outstanding movie.