Steven Spielberg can’t help but be sentimental and he has a hard time not making his presence as a director known. It’s this signature over-sentimentality and forceful nature of his storytelling that can often get in the way of the story he’s trying to tell. Rather than letting the characters and narrative guide the audience through his films, he feels it’s necessary to get it all out on the table early and often. Thankfully, with Lincoln he has taken a step back and almost had no choice but to do so once he hired what may be today’s greatest living actor in Daniel Day-Lewis to play Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States.
Casting Day-Lewis was our first sign we were in for a stunning character drama and the cast surrounding him all but assured that. Sally Field stars as Mary Todd Lincoln; Tommy Lee Jones plays Thaddeus Stevens; Lee Pace gives a strong performance as Fernando Wood, Democratic member of Congress leading the opposition against Lincoln’s proposal for the 13th Ammendment; James Spader is phenomenally entertaining as one of Lincoln’s Democratic operatives W.N. Bilbo; and Gloria Reuben stands out playing Mary Todd’s dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley.
This selection of names is just a handful of the talent collaborating to bring this drama to life, and I’ll be getting to more soon enough.
Tony Kushner, working in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “[amazon asin=”0684824906″ text=”Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln”]”, penned a screenplay with very much the same flavor as one from Aaron Sorkin. You can, however, notice Kushner’s playwright roots as this is a far more lyrical and less biting feature than you’d expect from the likes of Sorkin, yet it’s not without a fair amount of clever wit and welcomed comedic beats, preventing it from becoming an overly political slog.
What struck me most about Kushner’s work here is his ability to dramatize meetings and moments, which, by necessity, required imagination. This triumph of will came off as none too melodramatic, while still achieving a sense of authenticity. Lincoln’s pursuit to abolish slavery and ratify the 13th Amendment is met with a critical eye, even from some within his own camp as many questioned whether he was avoiding peace talks with the South in an attempt to push through his agenda, and perhaps doing so by questionable means. There’s a political grey area within the process and perhaps there’s no better time than now to look upon it and wonder if skirting the law to push through law we know to be “right” is the “right” thing to do.
Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln is an acting revelation. Prior to the film’s release many questioned his choice to present Lincoln with a soft-spoken tone of voice and weary slouch. For most, Lincoln is viewed through the perceived lens of history as a man bigger than life, but here he’s presented as nothing more than a man. Day-Lewis, in conjunction with Kushner’s screenplay, offer up a not-so-perfect father (a Spielberg theme his films have a hard time getting away from), a man who recognizes his power, a storyteller, husband and passionate politician presiding over the bloodiest war in U.S. history. To present him any other way than seen here would be to make both his faults and accomplishments as a human unbelievable.
Some may question the overall veracity of the film’s narrative (and you’d be right to do so with any piece of historical drama), but a clear effort was made to present Lincoln as a conflicted President faced with impossible odds that managed to push through one of the most important pieces of legislation our country has ever known. There’s a reason he’s looked upon as a hero and a reason people expected a larger-than-life portrayal, but no man is without his flaws and for all the honorable qualities Abraham Lincoln had, Lincoln does not presume to present him as wholly perfect.
Across the board the supporting cast is strong. Sally Field presents Mary Todd Lincoln with every measure of vigor, neurosis and concern as a mother who’s already lost a son, another (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) that wants to enlist and a husband that has to hide his human tendencies so as to lead a nation. David Strathairn plays Secretary of State William Seward with a confident air as he’s often wrapped in smoke from his cigar during backroom conversations between Lincoln and his hopeful constituents.
James Spader is wonderful as W.N. Bilbo, a lobbyist called in by Seward to help acquire votes to help pass the 13th Amendment. Carrying more weight than we’re used to seeing, Spader, alongside John Hawkes as Robert Latham, provide the view of the process from the battlegrounds as the frontline battle is waged in the House. Lee Pace spearheads the Democrats with gusto and verve while Tommy Lee Jones delivers a stellar performance as Thaddeus Stevens, a quick tempered Republican leader from Pennsylvania who spent much of his political career battling slavery. He wears his emotion on his sleeve and, in the end, offers one of the most rousing moments of the entire feature.
Lincoln, however, isn’t without a few missteps, many of which could have been excised, creating a much tighter narrative and even faster paced feature that somehow manages to create tension up until the end even though you know every which way the story is going to turn.
In large part, Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s performance as Lincoln’s son Robert could have been cut down dramatically if not entirely. As I noted, Spielberg loves to play up father-son drama in his features and he doesn’t avoid the opportunity here, but it doesn’t really add much to the story and in fact slows it down at times, feeling a little ham-fisted.
The production design is convincing all around, but every so often the cold and dreary nature of Janusz Kaminski‘s cinematography could have been brightened up a bit as even blue skies carry a greyish hue and Spielberg can’t resist the opportunity to position his actors in front of windows and nearly blind the audience with blasts of white light.
One area I was extraordinarily happy to see dialed back was with the score. Spielberg and John Williams have been together forever and created some of the most memorable scores to date, and while Williams’ work here is very much recognizable it plays more in line with the film rather than trampling all over it. Spielberg, for the most part, allows his actors and story to garner most of the attention, while stepping aside and removing his patented wide-eyed close ups and camera moves and letting the score simmer in the background rather than taking over the scene.
Lincoln, flaws and all, is a wonderful film filled with the passion that makes America great and the scars that make our political process questionable. Spielberg and his team don’t set out to paint a picture of a perfect man, but a man that strove to make a country better and those that joined him and opposed him in the process. It’s this presentation that makes it such an enjoyable film. Our 16th President isn’t made to look like a superhero, but a man that seized an opportunity to do something great and the strengthening of a nation that came as a result.