Spielberg’s Lincoln, a historical film about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution and the last days of the 16th President, is a collaboration between the director, the playwright Tony Kushner who also co-wrote Munich, and a lot of actors. All the elements are first rate, but they are also pedestrian. Despite the intelligence of the writing and the brilliance of the acting, notably by Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, Sally Field as his wife Molly, and Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, a leading Republican advocate of emancipation, everything is old fashioned. Missing completely are the bold flights of imagination and shifts of scene of Kuchner’s epic gay masterpiece, Angels in America. Lincoln, starting with its somewhat inaccurate title, is a relatively conventional piece of work, however uplifting and well made. It reminded me in its manner of a historical pageant like one I witnessed as a boy in Williamsburg, Virginia that told the story of the English settlement and colony. Peter Debruge in Variety, a dissenter among general raves (Metacritic’s rating is 86) said the film “looks as much like a Natural History Museum diorama as it sounds: a respectful but waxy re-creation that feels somehow awe-inspiring yet chillingly lifeless to behold” (except for one great performance). More positively, perhaps, one can see this as like the work of a great Forties Hollywood studio pro. The costumes, the bewhiskered curmudgeons, the well-lit period interiors, recall the old Hollywood, amplified by John Williams’ dated-sounding music. Spielberg’s War Horse last year was similarly old-fashioned — the more surprising since War Horse was adapted from a play full of bold theatrical invention.
Lincoln makes reference to vast events: the American Civil War has gone on for four years, 600,000 have died, and Lincoln faces the terrible toll it has taken while engaged in a titanic struggle to restore the union, eradicate the scourge of slavery from America once and for all, and secure his own legacy. He also specifically believes he must delay a truce till the freeing of the slaves is made more official, by Congress’ passing the Thirteenth Amendment, than his Emancipation Proclamation, which, it’s explained, in one of many expository scenes, was done under his war powers, and therefore might be declared to be of dubious legality once peacetime is restored.
Kushner has written and Spielberg has efficiently staged a variety of scenes. There are ones where Lincoln is a garrulous storyteller or teller of jokes, sometimes off-colour ones. He may be a bore at times, and in that regard human. He is enormously popular, and of course capable of the noblest oratory his country had ever known. There is no more moving scene than the early one when two white and one black soldier recite his Gettysburg Address from memory. Mostly he is shrewd and cool-headed. We rarely see him deeply troubled, never (as depicted in one recent biographical study) depressed. There are memorably intense separate clashes between Lincoln and his wife and son, both arising from his son’s decision to leave college and join the Union army. There are some other brief personal moments. There are a few key black characters. The Lincolns’ younger son Tad (Gulliver McGrath) adds a light note, the way he’s used also adding an old Hollywood feel.
But mostly there is a succession of political confabs between carefully distinguished, but sometimes, inevitably, unless you’re taking notes or have memorized the history, rather similar politicos. That’s primarily what the movie is about: its climax is the passing of the amendment, its tragic denouement (not shown), Lincoln’s assassination. We learn the President arranged to buy or give out political bribes for Democratic votes in the House. We enjoy arias of abuse from the crotchety Thaddeus Stevens, who never hesitates to make verbal hash of his rivals or inferiors. (The political infighting process shown here owes much to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.)
Spielberg is an immense figure in American cinema and has made stunning movies, including two before about American slavery. This is one of his most straight-laced historical efforts, lacking the emotional power of films like Amistad or Shindler’s List or the intensity of Munich, the magic of E.T. and A.I, — or sheer fun of Catch Me If You Can. Daniel Day-Lewis not surprisingly does a great job, and the lightness of his Lincoln may be a blessing and helps speed the complicated action along. There are interesting speeches here and noble words, but none of the wit of Aaron Sorkin’s “West Wing.” You just have to take it as it is, a serious look at a legislative process of great historical importance, with a strong glance at America’s most admired President. Nothing more, nothing less.
There are too many actors to comment on them all but a few stand out. As William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, David Strathairn is at his most distinguished and impressive, but still has that public television quality that makes this seem like a drama for schools. Jones provides the most direct humanity. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s everywhere nowadays in American movies, is fine as Robert Lincoln, the son who insists on going off to fight. Sally Field is soulful and sad as Molly Todd Lincoln. Jackie Earle Haley, his late-blooming career as a villain continuing, is memorable as the cocky Confederate Vice President who wants to quash the Thirteenth Amendment as a condition of making peace but can’t get away with it. All in all, though, and this is the film’s strength as well as its limitation, it’s ultimately more about politics and American democracy than about people.
Lincoln debuted at the New York Film Festival (sneak preview) 8th October 2012, it is released in the UK 25th Jan 2013.
DIRECTOR: STEVEN SPIELBERG
WRITERS: DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN (BOOK), TONY KUSHNER (SCREENPLAY)
STARS: DANIEL DAY-LEWIS, SALLY FIELD, JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT, TOMMY LEE JONES, DAVID STRATHAIRN, JACKIE EARLE HAYLEY
RUNTIME: 149 MINS