starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader
written by: Tony Kushner
directed by: Steven Spielberg
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language
What an ironic and bleak experience Lincoln would have been had this week’s elections gone the other way. Or, perhaps appropriately, how shaming. Rather than an overstuffed biopic attempting to cover the full mythical expanse of Lincoln’s life, Tony Kushner’s script (based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals) zeroes in on the months between Lincoln’s reelection and his death, focused specifically on his fierce commitment to passing the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, by hook or by crook. Lincoln was, of course, a Republican, as were many of his abolitionist allies; the Democrats were the pro-slavery party at the time. And although the lens of this week’s election gives Lincoln a jubilant sheen for Democrats and liberals, it should nonetheless inspire some grim national contemplation about how the Republican party’s approach toward minorities and equality has devolved from empowering to undermining over the last 150 years.
But I digress! So, Lincoln. The film begins with its only Civil War battle scene, which in just a few short moments conveys the unimaginable horror of true hand-to-hand combat, just hundreds of ill-equipped young men in a field desperately trying to kill each other, as effectively (if less graphically) than Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan opening. It is the fourth year of the war, and the weariness of it has clearly settled into Lincoln’s bones. He is committed to ending the war, but also to abolishing slavery. To accomplish either, he will have to engage in a treacherous game of Extreme Politicking. With the assistance of his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), he begins assembling a multi-pronged approach to accomplish these ends. No option is off the table, including a ragtag trio of “lobbyists” (headed by a never-funnier James Spader) recruited to bribe/harass/cajole the necessary amount of Democratic votes for the two-thirds majority required to pass the amendment. Another particularly powerful ally is Thaddeus Stevens (a be-wigged Tommy Lee Jones), the most ferocious abolitionist in the House.
But while the 13th Amendment is the primary focus of Lincoln, it also attempts to depict at least a measure of his family life. We see a handful of private scenes between Lincoln and his haunted wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), who still grieves the death of their young son Louis several years prior. And naturally, this being a Spielberg film, he can’t help but give us two emotionally contrasting father-son relationships, one with Lincoln’s adoring young moppet Tad (Gulliver McGrath), and the other with pissed-off Robert Todd (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who resents his father’s unavailability and his parents’ refusal to let him enlist in the war. Kushner’s script also knowingly winks at the research that has suggested Lincoln may have been just the slightest bit gay, particularly in one amusing sequence in which Lincoln has some middle-of-the-night pillow talk with one of his cute young aides (gaybait Joseph Cross) about a stack of presidential pardon requests, followed by sustained mutual eye contact, some hair-tussling, and Cross delivering that most classic of suggestive solicitations: “Want some company?”
Kushner and Spielberg are not so delusional as to think they could actually get inside that giant head and make us feel as if we knew Lincoln, but they accomplish the much more impressive feat of creating a sense of his presence. The lion’s share of this credit, of course, goes to Day-Lewis, who vanishes completely — completely — into this character. Janusz Kaminski’s painterly photography is sparing in its direct close-ups of his face, as if to look too closely might break the spell; the lighting and makeup frequently combine to suggest less a flesh-and-blood person than a walking presidential portrait. Some have criticized Day-Lewis’ character voice as being distractingly high, but to my ears it sounded somewhere between Jimmy Stewart and John Travolta, which isn’t exactly Mickey Mouse. Outward cues aside, this seems almost like a different kind of acting altogether, truly powered from within. Day-Lewis has internalized Lincoln to his very core, and while his performance is relatively low on Oscar-friendly drama, it is arguably one of the greatest historical portrayals in movie history.
The supporting cast, which consists of just about every rumpled character actor to ever grow a beard (with the conspicuous absence of Paul Giamatti), is perfect. Tommy Lee Jones, those landslides of sagging flesh under his eyes looking more testicular with every passing year, is very much in the Oscar running for his powder-keg work as Stevens. He will almost certainly contend with Alan Arkin from Argo for most crowd-pleasingly cranky old bastard in a supporting role. Sally Field, in her biggest film role since Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde (LOL!), leaves satisfied bite-marks all over the role of Mary Todd Lincoln. Her performance verges on theatrical at times, but she nails her big Oscar-clip scene with exhilarating dramatic mastery. Even the generally underutilized Lee Pace shows up to deliver a series of ferocious speeches on the House floor and to spar delightfully with Jones. And is that Adam from Girls? Look, it’s Adam from Girls!
Lincoln ultimately has more in common with Argo than just the strong likelihood of competing together in many top Oscar categories. Each represents one of Hollywood’s most well-known liberals stepping into the cultural fray to defend the U.S. government, which has come under such cynical attack by sizable factions of the GOP during this election cycle, by offering spirited, expertly-crafted civics lessons on the vital significance and potential of this institution. Lincoln, Argo, and even the fictitious but immensely inspiring Parks and Recreation have all joined together this year to create an enthusiastically harmonious defense, and even celebration, of the purpose and power of our democracy. And by fighting to restore our culture’s faith in its institutional foundation, they have simultaneously strengthened our belief in the power of art and storytelling.
Lincoln is now playing in the Bay Area.