Lincoln: a review

To begin with, the Oscar race this year is over.  Not that it matters much: the Oscars are a nice guide to a bunch of films that film people thought were especially good, but those awards are not particularly meaningful per se.  But this year, the suspense is over: we know. Best director, best screenplay, best actor, best actress, best supporting actor, and of course, best film: Lincoln will run the table.

I know people who didn’t particularly want to see it, because the trailers weren’t very good. I agree; they weren’t. Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, with that reedy voice, pounding the table; it looked like it could be the worse kind of inspirational costume parade movie.  It’s not.  The trailers are weak because the scenes tend to be rather long, and the trailers show just the climax of a scene, and not the sinuous build-up.  But in the context of the entire movie, those same long scenes crackle, are filled with wit and energy, political and personal complexities colliding.  It’s a long movie, but there’s not a second wasted; every scene is crucial, every image filled with thought and emotion.

Lincoln essentially follows four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, from January to April, 1865, and deals primarily with one event, the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the Amendment that abolishes slavery.  We do hear bits of the two most important Lincoln speeches.  The film begins in a scene where three young soldiers stumble through most of the Gettysburg address, showing off for their Commander-in-Chief.  It ends with the second half of the Second Inaugural (to my mind, the finest speech ever given by an American), but those speeches are not the focus of the film.  Nor is it a Civil War film–we do see short battle scenes, but mostly to remind us of the ugly brutality that underlies everything else in the movie.

No, Stephen Spielberg and his screenwriter, the award-winning playwright Tony Kushner, focus their movie mostly on Lincoln the politician, Lincoln the wily political operative.  It’s about the horse-trading and arm wringing and threats and barely legal bribes that forced an unpopular Amendment down a wary public’s throat.  At times, the movie is very funny, in fact; there’s tremendous wit in the writing, and Lincoln’s great love of long, meandering countrified tall tales is woven throughout, though we’re always aware that his jokes and stories serve larger tactical purposes.  Kushner’s screenplay is a marvel; every scene perfectly shaped, capturing the diction of nineteenth century rhetoric as well as the homespun conversation of everyday nineteenth century life.  I’m a playwright, and I work hard at my craft.  I watched this movie in awe of the writing.  I cannot now, and never will be able to write that brilliantly.  And I’m perfectly content saying that.

Still, if anyone is naive enough to think that politics is all inspiring speeches and high ideals will be disabused of such notions by the end of this film.  I thought of Obamacare in this regard, how many Republicans continue to resent the way President Obama, with help from Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi, shepherded that unpopular piece of legislation through Congress– not much debate, not really time to read it. Shoved it down our throats, say some of my conservative friends.  So was the Thirteenth Amendment: just as unpopular, just as unscrupulously strong-armed into law.  Because that’s sometimes what leadership means.  Because that’s sometimes the only way great things can be accomplished.

The film also explores the complicated relationship between Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln.  I think we mostly think of Mary Todd as, well, deranged; as Abraham Lincoln’s crazy wife.  And she was almost certainly borderline schizophrenic.  But she was also a capable and intelligent political partner, Lincoln’s vote counter and strategist.  It’s quite fascinating; our greatest President was probably clinically depressed for much of his Presidency, married to a woman who may well have suffered from serious psychological issues.  But they were nonetheless able to function.  Sally Field gives the finest performance of her career as Mary, capturing every mood swing and calculation with superb craftsmanship.  And Daniel Day-Lewis gives the finest acting performance I’ve seen in a movie in years. Every detail is perfection; the voice, the walk, the story-telling and above all, the transcendent intelligence in his eyes.

The nineteenth century was a great era for facial hair, and oddly enough, Spielberg uses that to his advantage too.  Much of the film involves debates in the House of Representatives, and the votes of maybe thirty delegates are crucial. There’s no way we’d ever be able to sort them all out using just their names.  But in those debate scenes, we keep score via facial hair; oh, that’s the bushy beard dude, which way is he leaning; what about mutton-chops and moustache guy, which party does he belong to? Those debate scenes, though, primarily feature Lee Pace as Fernando Wood, leading of the Democratic opposition to the Amendment, and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the Radical Republican leader, in favor of it.  Jones dominates every scene in which he appears, and his character is the focus of much of the plot; yes he’s an important yes vote for the Amendment, but when he speaks in favor of it, will he scare off moderate Democrats?  The final vote scene–which is as exciting as any scene in any movie in years–makes sense to us, because we’ve seen all those bushy faced guys earlier; we know who they are, where they stand, and can actually tell ’em apart.

The great Civil War historian Bruce Catton once wrote that, by 1863, the Civil War had come down to two great wills competing, to a battle to the death between two men: Lincoln, and Robert E. Lee.  This film captures Lincoln’s will, his ferocious determination, but only in moments, in quick snatches of dialogue. He’s actually something of a comic character, a man who at times knew the strategic value of playing a clown. We never see Lee at all, nor do we see Jefferson Davis, but we do see the remarkable Jackie Earle Haley, as Alexander Stephens, the Confederacy’s vice-President, who visits Lincoln to sue for peace.  We also see Ulysses S. Grant: Jared Harris walks with such authority you know it’s Grant the second we see him.

Although the film covers Lincoln’s assassination, it never mentions John Wilkes Booth, and has no scenes inside Ford’s Theater.  I think this had to be a deliberate choice by Spielberg and Kushner; as though at some point, in some meeting, they mutually decided that they weren’t going to honor the name of the contemptible bastard who murdered Lincoln; that his name would never be mentioned.  Absolutely right too.  I’m a theatre person, and Booth is the theatre person who dishonors us all.

Still, because of the respect in which most American hold the name of our sixteenth President, we do tend to think of him as Saint Abraham.  This film shows us a very human Lincoln, Lincoln the practical pol, a Lincoln perfectly willing to use any lawyerly dodge to get a piece of legislation passed.  Ultimately, the film ends up honoring . . . politics. It’s a civics lesson, a much needed one, disguised as an inspirational film.  I think it’s a brilliant work of art.  But Lincoln is not just a great movie; not just the Platonic ideal for biopics. I think it is also a stunning act of patriotism.


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