Saturday, November 17, 2012
Lincoln takes place in the first months of 1865, the last four months of Lincoln’s life. With the South all but defeated the country is balanced between expediency and the future. Lincoln can receive the peace delegation led by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley) and likely end the war with no change in the status of the South’s slaves. The other choice is harder and requires all of the President’s political wiles; Lincoln wants a Constitutional amendment banning slavery through Congress before the South comes back into the Union. If Lincoln is about anything besides the great man’s humanity it is about how a sense of right can motivate great change with a little help. The Republicans led by Thaddeus Stevens (a marvelous Tommy Lee Jones) will support the amendment but Lincoln needs Democratic votes as well and is willing to trade patronage jobs to get the support he needs. Secretary of State William Seward (David Straithairn) recruits three fixers to work on reluctant Democrats, and some of the movie’s most entertaining scenes involve James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson practicing a particular brand of political calculus that these days is probably more the province of lobbyists and Super PACs. The House of Representatives that debates the Thirteenth Amendment is a good deal less formal than the body we know today, and a fine laboratory for Spielberg’s interest in countries figuring themselves out. It’s bracing to hear our elected leaders speak in fully formed sentences and also surprising how much fun the House was when its members were allowed to insult each other. (Lee Pace bears the brunt of Republican fire as Democratic opponent of the amendment.) Tommy Lee Jones gets some of the best rhetoric in Lincoln, and it’s a measure of how much we come to believe in Stevens’ passion that the moment when he has to deny his belief in full equality on the House floor carries such weight.
Life inside The White House is the other and slightly weaker strand of Lincoln, and it’s here where we see the stresses of war and leadership take their toll. At the same time Lincoln is expressing his conflicts over his own powers to free the slaves - Kushner writes Day-Lewis a dense but very sharp monologue to explain Lincoln’s reasoning - he is also the father of would-be solider Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), young Tad (Gulliver McGrath), and the late Will, who died in Lincoln’s first term. As Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field has some fine, feisty moments but is also written as being aware of her own mental health in a way that doesn’t quite work. Day-Lewis doesn’t get to play enough of Lincoln’s own emotions in these scenes with Field; Lincoln becomes a caregiver of sorts but it’s hard not to wonder if he ever got angry or showed frustration with his wife. Lincoln is often bent over or curled up in thought as events unfold, usually just before a big decision. It isn’t surprising that Day-Lewis settled on a voice and a walk for the character and he’s convincingly worn down as the amendment vote approaches, but I don’t know that I’ve seen an actor arrive at such a specific physical attitude for a character the way Day-Lewis has here. The President belongs to everyone, but Lincoln isn’t afraid to go into himself to figure out the country, and Day-Lewis nails that sense perfectly. Lincoln looks most uncomfortable when speaking in public, and if that is by design then the choice works. There are only brief moments in Lincoln when the myth overcomes the man; in the opening scene Lincoln is talking to two African-American soldiers and then has the Gettysburg Address recited to him, but that’s about as on the nose as it gets. The biggest African-American presence comes from Gloria Reuben and Stephen McKinley Henderson as the Lincoln family’s White House attendants, and both get to be full characters in their brief screen time as opposed to mere repositories of goodness.
Lincoln makes its case that a big part of what we know our country to be today came from these few months in 1865, as did our ideas about Presidential leadership. All citizens are equal in the eyes of both God and the law, and a President should be sensitive yet pragmatic and unafraid to do what’s necessary. While it keeps those big ideas in play Lincoln succeeds because of its humanity and willingness to let its characters think before speaking. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance will likely live on as a definitive Lincoln, and the movie should endure as well. Lincoln isn’t the first time that Steven Spielberg has delivered a vision of what American life should be, but it has been too long since that life felt as rich and strange as it does here.