I suspect I won’t be alone on this, but I was quietly dreading Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, especially after the maudlin miasma he called War Horse. Spielberg has a tendency to get a little overly sentimental, particularly with his historical epics (and sometimes with his War of the Worldses), and this biographical film about America’s favorite president seemed likely to follow suit. The opening scene shows Abraham Lincoln visiting soldiers on the front lines who quote the Gettysburg Address back to him verbatim, and that prepared me for a depressingly glorified Mary Sue portrayal of The Great Emancipator, reverent to a fault no matter how beautifully acted and photographed it may perhaps inevitably be.
But then Steven Spielberg turned around and gave me one of the most fascinating and even-handed motion pictures of his career; a thoughtful, impressive and outright entertaining examination of 19th century politics and its many parallels with present day politicking. Well done, Mr. Spielberg. I’ll just go and screw myself now. I’ll never doubt you again. Until I remember that you also made War Horse.
It turns out that that opening scene is an important introduction to Lincoln. It establishes the 16th president’s glorified reputation before questioning its every facet, revealing an unexpected complexity to his political and personal achievements that is so far afield of mere reverence that the film actually feels rather real. Instead of portraying the entire life story of Abraham Lincoln, played remarkably (duh) by Daniel Day-Lewis, Spielberg’s film focuses almost entirely on the chaotic political battle to abolish slavery at a time when more than half the country was against the idea, or at most, only willing to entertain it as a means to an end: that is, ceasing the ever-mounting death toll of the Civil War. The film goes beyond the grade school textbooks and folk tales by presenting a politician with excellent intentions, yes, but who was also willing to engage in the ethically murky (at best) back door dealings that were necessary to convince his peers that the time had come, at last, for equality… whether they liked it or not.
The script, written by Tony Kushner and based largely on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, intricately illustrates the lengths to which Lincoln, and by extension any good politician, has to go to in order to pass progressive legislation in a system mired in maintaining the status quo. The subtleties of that process are made entertaining and exposed for the often comic capering that they probably really are, at least at the ground level, and although the finished film indulges in a few overblown dramatic moments (it’s a Spielberg movie after all), the director manages to save them for mostly the right occasions. I have never before heard the bombastic strains of John Williams’ orchestra used to elevate a moment of pragmatic ethical compromise to near godliness, but it may be the most effective use of his talents since “The Duel of the Fates” almost singlehandedly kept The Phantom Menace from being an absolute wash.
Daniel Day-Lewis continues his string of impeccable, “Jesus Christ How Does He Do That” performances as the 16th president, imbuing the icon with a natural charisma and conveying simultaneously the emotional and personal toll his responsibilities would take on a man, great or otherwise. The scenes with his family, and particularly with Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd, are not a vacation from his responsibilities. They are the inspiration for and direct result of his actions as president, just as his presidency is the direct result of every other aspect of his life. When his son, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, demands to enlist in the Civil War out of sheer principle, it calls attention to Lincoln’s own decision to prolong the deadly conflict in order to motivate congress to pass his abolitionist amendment. Lincoln the father is unwilling to sacrifice his own son, but as the president, he bites the bullet for the whole nation, further complicating his understandably paternal instincts towards his own flesh and blood by placing them in direct conflict with his politics.
Spielberg’s film depicts a side of Abraham Lincoln and the American political system that is equally stimulating and intellectually inspiring, bookending insightful and judgment-free examinations of our strange political system with the emotional bullet points that everyone already knows. Between the Gettysburg Address and the end of the Civil War lies something rather like the truth… and it’s more fascinating than you probably realized. In short, Lincoln is almost good enough to make me forget all about War Horse. Almost.
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