Steven Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” is deceptively titled; this isn’t a biopic in the traditional sense of the form. We don’t meet Honest Abe as a youngster in Illinois. We don’t see how he earned that nickname, or rose to fame, or won the presidency against all odds. There’s no mention of vampire-hunting. Even his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address, isn’t exactly in the movie – well, it is, but it’s recited by a minor character, who has memorized it, and not by Lincoln himself.
A more apt title would be “The 13th Amendment,” but it’s pretty easy to see why Spielberg and co. didn’t go with that. “Lincoln” plays ike a 19th century version of “The West Wing” (which, Mr. Sorkin, if you’re reading this, I would SO watch that show.) it focuses on a few weeks in Lincoln’s White House, and the struggles, contriving, dealmaking, scheming, and pleading it took to get an abolishment of slavery into the Constitution.
Backroom political deals may tarnish our notions of how a democracy really works, but surprisingly enough, they make great theater, if handled right. And screenwriter Tony Kushner (who penned the award-winning “Angels in America” years ago) does a great job of coaxing the drama out of horse trading, and maximizing the theatricality of a congressional debate, without losing the audience in the intricacies of Capitol Hill. Mostly. There’s such a swirl of characters and intrigues that it’s tough to keep track of who’s who and why they matter; the principles are clear enough, but folks like John Hay keep popping up, and I never figured where he fit in all of it. If you’re not willing to give “Lincoln” your full attention, you’re likely to find it a confusing mess of politics, war, and morality.
Daniel Day-Lewis disappears into the role of Lincoln, as he always does. His performances are so consistently high-caliber as to become commonplace. What surprised me was Sally Field’s electrifying performance. She portrays Mary Todd Lincoln not as the mentally unstable First Lady of most history books, but as a woman who has internalized the stress and strain of the Civil War, and bravely attempts not to buckle under the burden of it all. Why don’t we see more of Ms. Field? She is such a charismatic and powerful actress. I like her, I really like her. And if she doesn’t win some big awards for her portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln, I’ll eat something unpleasant.
Tommy Lee Jones turns in another memorable performance as Thaddeus Stevens, a fiery orator and congressman whose views on race relations are even more radical than Lincoln’s (though hardly radical by today’s standards.) He serves as an example of a political leader who must temper his own views in order to affect some level of change; if he calls to stridently for the level of change he believes is in order, he will meet with nothing but opposition from almost all sides. It’s fun to watch Jones sweat his way through scenes where it is clear that he is calling upon reserves of self-control and willpower he never knew he had to keep from blowing his top — and in the process, blowing his party’s chances of getting meaningful legislation passed.
“Lincoln” includes a veritable Who’s Who of the best character actors working; the casting agent must have had a hell of a budget. For the record, my definition of a “character actor” is someone whose face you recognize but whose name you don’t know, but here’s a list of their names anyway: Tim Blake Nelson, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Hailey, Dane DeHaan, Bruce McGill, Lee Pace. Most of them only have a line or two, but draw more drama and presence out of those few seconds than some actors can manage with a whole reel.
I suppose my only serious complaint with “Lincoln” is the way in which it ends. I’d say it’s about ten minutes too long. We all know how Lincoln died; since Spielberg made this a film less about Lincoln and more about the slavery amendment, I don’t think it was really necessary to include Lincoln’s assassination in the film. And the way it’s included involves a cheap bait-and-switch that reminded me of the stupid ending of a very different (and inferior) film released this year — “Prometheus.” A better, bolder decision would have been to simply fade to black after the amendment was passed.
Aside from that “Lincoln” is a strong film, and decidedly one of the best of 2012. It’s a thoughtful rumination on how public morality intersects with politics and lawmaking. One of the questions I’m always confronted with during political elections is whether elected officials should be leaders or public servants, the difference being that a public servant is obliged to faithfully represent and reflect the opinions and desires of his constituency in his voting, but a leader does what he believes to be right, regardless of how popular or unpopular it’s going to make her. “Lincoln” lands strongly in the latter camp; it’s clear that Abe and his allies are pushing through legislation that isn’t in line with how most of the country thinks about slavery and blacks. Their sense of right and wrong informs their lawmaking more than the voice of the people. But one wonders what would’ve happened if they’d waited for public opinion to come around. Would it ever have happened? A hundred and fifty-odd years later, everyone believes slavery is wrong. But how did we get here? Where Lincoln and his allies just ahead of us on the “road of progress,” or are we here because they led us here, pulling us by the nose when necessary? I don’t know enough about history or political theory to answer these questions — indeed, I have no idea how factual and accurate “Lincoln” the movie is in regard to these questions — but I appreciate a film that spurs me to consider them.