Honest Abe achieves silver-screen sainthood
Published: November 14, 2012
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Opens Nov. 16
Pure, unadulterated schmaltz—that’s how the crank will gripe about Lincoln. And the movie undoubtedly yanks on one’s heartstrings. But the stunning quality of the film’s technical execution far outweighs its saint-like treatment of the 16th president of the United States. Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner, acted by a horde of Hollywood darlings, and framed flawlessly by Steven Spielberg, Lincoln immerses you in a claw-footed tub of 1860s nostalgia and patriotism.
Focused on the passage of the slavery-ending 13th Amendment by the House of Representatives, Lincoln picks up in January 1865, after the president’s re-election, at the height of his popularity. The Union forces’ conquest and peacemaking negotiations seem more likely than ever, but Honest Abe (played by Daniel Day-Lewis) has abolition on the brain. The controversial amendment has already passed in the Senate, and, to the public, he has posed its success as a military necessity to end the war. His secretary of state, William Seward (David Strathairn), and his wife, Mary Todd (Sally Field), beseech him to bask in his post-election afterglow and end the war through other means. Lincoln cannot be deterred though. In one scene, silencing his carping cabinet, he sums it up: “I want to wrap the whole slavery thing up.”
So the political gears are set in motion. Seward enlists the help of a trio of ragtag prototypical lobbyists (led comically by James Spader) to secure the requisite amount of Democratic “ayes” in the Republican-dominated House; the playful fiddle leitmotif that accompanies this group’s law-breaking—they pay bribes and promise appointments to lame-duck Dems—indicates a forgiving attitude toward political corruption for the sake of a good cause. Meanwhile, inter-party debate among the Republicans splinters the conservatives and the radicals, who demand a more robust equality. All the while, the war rages on, and Lincoln juggles some familial issues. Kushner’s script involves many spinning plates, and he balances these successfully, ensuring that those who forget their high school American history lessons can keep up.
Even if the particulars are vague, the outlines of Lincoln’s story are known to every American over the age of 7. Spielberg approaches this challenge cleverly and self-consciously: He reveals crucial characters (and the celebrities playing them) mid-way through scenes, using the camera to unveil them suddenly. In the opening sequence, two black Union soldiers recount the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry; as the camera zooms out slowly, an unidentified silhouette appears in the corner of the frame. One of the soldiers begins to orate on civil rights, imagining that, in 100 years, African-Americans might be able to vote. His comrade speaks over him, as if to discourage him. Cut to the first shot of Lincoln, the unidentified silhouette. Thaddeus Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones’ character, makes his debut in a similar fashion, as does Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Robert Lincoln. You can practically hear the audience coo with delight as the stars come out, one by one.
Day-Lewis’ Lincoln cuts a figure at once frail and sturdy. He’s so tall, he seems to teeter on stilts; but he has a pronounced plod when he walks, lifting his feet off the ground and moving apace, like a horse missing his back end. He’s often shrouded in a shawl. He roams the White House night and day, like a family dog: soothing a moody Mary Todd, giving a piggyback ride to a sleepy Tad (Gulliver McGrath), trading philosophical musings with telegraph operators, waking his aides in the middle of the night to pardon 16-year-old deserters. He holds people’s hands at pivotal moments. He launches into long-winded but perspicacious anecdotes in times of critical decision-making. His character flaws are few in Lincoln—he clearly favors Tad to Robert; he’s not above committing “a lawyer’s dodge,” or rule-bending—but the depiction of the president is largely that of the best, noblest American imaginable. And if you’re a fan of Abe, this sits well enough.
Thaddeus Stevens’ character, on the other hand, is less developed but more complex. A proponent of equal rights in the extreme, Stevens has a commanding presence in the House, barking insults at representatives. He wields power over the radical faction of the Republican Party, but he’s not well-loved. In one scene, he spars with Mary Todd, who shoves her husband’s popularity in Stevens’ toad-like face. Silently, he takes the blow. Stevens’ desire for abolition is different than Lincoln’s; it’s one of principle, not of urgency. His character is grittier than Lincoln’s, more human. And when he publicly compromises his values to make the amendment easier to swallow, his action seems even more heroic than the president’s.
Lincoln lasts 153 minutes and the experience it creates, start to finish, is that of viewing an animated 19th century painting. Spielberg knows precisely how to direct the eye. He uses cigar smoke, drapes, and Day-Lewis’ angular cheekbones to play with light and shadow. In such aesthetic splendor, even the crankiest Civil War historian can forget his quibbles and sink into cinematic submission.
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