One of the best movies ever made about Jesus was Franco Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth. One of its smartest narrative strategies was how they handled Jesus. He is so iconic and so far above us that it becomes incredibly difficult to do Him justice. CS Lewis said that it is easy to enter the mindset of someone worse than you. All you have to do is remove the moral restraints in our soul. But it is so much more difficult to put ourselves into the mind of someone better than us. Jesus of Nazareth sidesteps this by being much more about what it was like for ordinary people to be in the presense of the God-Man Jesus than it is about telling the story from Jesus' perspective.
And that is the same way it is with Steven Spielberg's Lincoln. This hagiographic approach to the 16th President actually works because instead of making us walk in Lincoln's shoes we walk in Lincoln's shadow. The opening scene sets the tone as he sits under a canopy as Union soldiers shuffle around for deployment, speaking to him with a mixture of awe and affection. He is not only holding court with them, but with us the audience. We are invited to sit by the great man and learn from him.
Rather than following his life from start to finish, as many biopics do, Lincoln is primarily about the 2 and a half months between his re-election to the presidency and his fight to get Congress to pass the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery. By doing this, the movie avoids the major problem that most biopics have, where they are meandering and disjointed as they try to cram many unrelated historical events into the narrative. But this story has a beginning, middle, and end because it focused only on a slice of Lincoln's life. And while there is a good deal of his personal life that informs his actions, the movie is mostly about the political maneuverings of the time. It feels very much like an extended episode of The West Wing set in 1865.
And Lincoln must navigate his way through the swamp of Washington. He has convinced the common people that the 13th Amendment is necessary for winning the war. But if the war ends first, which looks to be the case at the beginning of the film, then popular support for the amendment will evaporate. His Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) leads the back alley negotiations while Secretary of War Stanton (Bruce McGill) pushes for heavier attacks. Meanwhile Lincoln needs the help of Radical Republican Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) while at the same time needing him to moderate his position so as not to alienate the moderates. And Lincoln must do most of this while fighting a war with the South and a war at home with his mentally unbalanced wife (Sally Field) and estranged son (Joseph Gordon-Leavitt). If all of that sounds incredibly complicated, it is. But that is a good thing.
A lot of credit needs to be given to screenwriter Tony Kushner, who wrote the awful Angels in America and the thematically schizophrenic Munich. He positions the tension between essential moral principles and political compromise that does not judge either. It poses a severe moral question. Stevens, for example, wants full equality for all people. But if he pushes for that, then he could lose the vote that would outlaw slavery.
The movie is not a political allegory; it is not a mask for some other current political issues dressed up in 19th Century clothing. It is rarer and better. It has what Tolkien called "applicability." You can use this story and apply it to any political cause. For example, we Catholic Pro-Lifers seek to outlaw abortion because we believe in human rights for all, born and unborn. But popular support in the country does not exist for banning abortion in the case of rape and incest. So what is a Pro-Lifer to do? Lincoln does an amazing balancing act of principled leadership and political pragmatism.
I must speak now about Daniel Day-Lewis' much lauded performance as Abraham Lincoln. He has gotten a good deal of Oscar buzz and rightly so. I was not impressed with what I saw of him in the trailers, so I went in very skeptical. But there was a bit of genius to his decision to play against the expected baritone, imposing type that is typical of most movie Lincolns. By breaking with that tradition and giving him a high, cracking voice and unassuming posture, you never feel like he is doing an impression of Lincoln. Day Lewis gives you a performance that feels like a complete, three-dimmensional character. He draws you in with his quaint stories and then hits you with his crystal-clear wisdom, but he always keeps you at a distance. It is the feeling you get when you are in the presence of someone truly great: you don't feel worthy enough to draw too close. Day-Lewis' Lincoln is flawed, but his all the more admirable for his flaws. The other actors do very well in their parts, like Gloria Reuben in a small but memorable role as White House employee Mrs. Keckly and James Spader as Mr. Bilbo, a slimy scoundrel who happens to be fighting for the right side.
This is probably the best movie Spielberg has directed since Saving Private Ryan. Having said that, I have to say there is not much that is truly impressive about the directing. This movie doesn't really have any of the visual flourish of early Spielberg, nor the mature innovation of '90's Spielberg. The visuals are serviceable, but nothing overly special. There were so many opportunities to bring to life the grandeur of this man in a unique cinematic way, but Spielberg chose a more discreet style. This is perhaps unfair, but I always expect more from this movie master. The same can be said of John Williams score, which feels like it is made up of cut sequences from Saving Private Ryan and War Horse (Seriously, watch the War Horse trailer followed by the Lincoln trailer, and the music feels recycled).
Historical movies are always a challenge, especially when they are made about great men and women. How can you, as Shakespeare said, dare to bring to life "so great an object." But Spielberg, Kushner, and Day-Lewis have done a fantastic job of presenting to us Abraham Lincoln in all of his greatness.
4 out of 5 stars