With the simple title of Lincoln, one might expect the new film from Steven Spielberg to be an all-encompassing biopic of the life of our famous stovepot-hat-wearing former President. However, quite cunningly, Mr. Spielberg and screenwriter (and acclaimed playwright) Tony Kushner (basing their work in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) chose instead to focus on a very short period — about two months — at the end of Lincoln’s life, in which he endeavored to bring the Civil War to a close and to pass the 13th Ammendment, abolishing slavery in the United States of America.
It’s an ingenious choice, and as a result Lincoln stays far away from many of the familiar beats of the biopic. The film is one-part character study, allowing us to spend time getting to know this most iconic of men, and one-part peek behind the curtain to see how the sausage of politics gets made — or, at least, how it did back in 1865.
The film is thrilling, and the way Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kushner made a two-and-a-half hour story about how an amendment gets passed into such an edge-of-your seat piece of entertainment is absolutely astonishing. The script is terrific. The film has a huge ensemble (I’ll get back to this in a minute), but it’s never overwhelming, never confusing. We’re introduced to a breadth of characters each of whom has a distinct personality and point of view and each of whom helps, in a small way, to illuminate the story being told. Through these characters we are brought into the world of the bitterly divided America of 1865, still caught in the final throes of Civil War, and we are given keen insight into the political process of the day. We see all the different points of view on the amendment, we learn why these different individuals hold these different points of view, and we see in intricate detail the work done by Mr. Lincoln and his team (several of whom are exceedingly grudging temporary allies) to, step by tiny step, move the pieces into place in their attempt to pass this momentous piece of legislation. This The West Wing: 1865, and I don’t mean that to belittle the film in any way but rather as a huge compliment. Lincoln is exciting and humorous and tragic, filled with colorful figures and eager to show the audience the nuts and bolts of our political process, warts and all.
All of this, of course, is anchored and elevated (if I may mix my metaphors) by the astonishing performance of Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. I cannot believe this is the same man who has been so terrifying in films like There Will Be Blood and Gangs of New York. Mr. Day Lewis has transformed himself completely, physically (I don’t know how they managed to make him look so tall and gangly throughout the film, but I am impressed), vocally (I’m not in a position to vouch for the accuracy of the voice Mr. Day Lewis uses in the film, but it certainly sounded right to me, and not at all like Mr. Day Lewis’ voice as I have heard it in any previous film) and spiritually/emotionally. His Lincoln is gentle, wise, and unceasingly compelling. This is Abraham Lincoln as we all wish he was — it’s Abraham Lincoln as Atticus Finch, the noble, wise father figure attempting to navigate as best he can a world of flawed, often misguided human beings while still holding tight to his principles and his inner nobility. It’s also Abraham Lincoln as Josiah Bartlett, always the smartest man in the room, always seeing the strategy that others don’t, always having a story or parable to tell (to the delight of some and the annoyance of others). This is the depiction of the type of man we always want our president to be. It’s beguiling, and I would have gladly stayed in the company of this Abraham Lincoln for two-and-a-half hours more. Is it historically accurate? That’s hard for me to judge, but Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Day Lewis give this version of Lincoln enough humanity along with his nobility that it feels credible to me. Over-all it is a magnificent depiction, and while I give huge amounts of credit to Tony Kushner’s script (what wonderful speeches he has given this Lincoln!), at the end of the day it is all about the acting accomplishment of Daniel Day Lewis. The man is the very definition of mesmerizing in the film. Whatever one might thing about anything else in this film, it is absolutely worth seeing for Daniel Day Lewis’ performance alone.
Luckily, the rest of the film is pretty darn good, as are Mr. Day Lewis’ fellow actors. As usual, the great Steven Spielberg has assembled a wonderful ensemble of actors, all of whom are great and all of whom are well-served by the sharp, tight script. At the top of the heap is the amazing David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) as Lincoln’s close friend and advisor, Secretary of State Seward. Sticking with my West Wing analogy, he is Leo, providing a vital sounding-board for the President and helping to shape his strategies, while not being above criticizing Mr. Lincoln when he sees fit. Sally Fields eats up her scenes as First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, showing fragility and also great strength. Tommy Lee Jones is an absolute hoot as the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens, Lincoln’s spirited foil who finds himself sharing a common purpose with the President. And James Spader (Sex, Lies, and Videotape) is a double-hoot as the somewhat disreputable William Bilbo (love that name), head of the team hired by Seward to help get pro-amendment votes, by hook or (mostly) by crook. His team-mates are played by John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone) and Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Incredible Hulk), and their scenes together are fantastic. It’s great to see the wonderful Hal Holbrook (All the President’s Men) again, here playing the leader of the conservative wing of the Republican party Francis Preston Blair. So many other wonderful actors pop up memorably throughout the film: Joseph Gordon-Levitt ((500) Days of Summer, The Dark Knight Rises) as Lincoln’s son Robert Todd, Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach from Watchmen) as the leader of the Confederate peace delegation, Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, Boardwalk Empire) as Congressman Yeaman, Bruce McGill (such a terrific character actor, always remembered by me as Al the Bartender from the series finale of Quantum Leap) as Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Jared Harris (Mad Men) masking his British accent to play Ulysses S. Grant, heck even Gregory Itzin (who has played a lot of villains, particularly President Logan on 24) pops up as a member of the Confederate delegation, and my wife and I smiled when Adam Driver from Girls appeared as a telegraph operator in a key scene.
The film is perfection until the final 3-5 minutes. We come to a terrific ending, in which Mr. Lincoln leaves his cabinet with the line (layered with meaning): “I have to go but I’d rather stay,” and then we see his famous silhouette walk off into the distance. Without a question the film should have ended there. (And, indeed, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Tony Kushner referred to that as the film’s last line, leading me to suspect that the film did originally end at that point.) But it doesn’t. Instead, we get an additional couple of minutes in which we hear of Lincoln’s death, see his crying son and wife, and then get an image of Lincoln superimposed over a flame (eternal flame, I get it, I get it, ugh) while we see him delivering a key speech. It’s way too schmaltzy and over-the top. We all know Lincoln was assassinated, we all know how this story ends. I didn’t need to see his wailing son, and I certainly didn’t need the heavy-handed Lincoln-a-the-eternal-flame imagery. Either give me twenty minutes to really delve into the aftermath of Lincoln’s death, and to let us see the effects of his passing on his friends and allies who we have gotten to know over the film, men like Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens and Hal Holbrook’s Francis Preston Blair. Or, better yet, give the audience a teensy bit of credit and let us fill in the ending ourselves, stopping just with the image of Lincoln’s walking off into the distance. Oh well. It does seem to me that, in his later years, Mr. Spielberg has started to have some trouble with the endings of his films.
Despite this small stumble at the very end, Lincoln is a terrific film and one I highly recommend. It is moving and gripping, and its centerpiece is what is without a doubt the best acting performance of the year. Very nice work by Mr. Spielberg and his team.
Check out my earlier reviews of Steven Spielberg films: War Horse (2012), The Adventures of Tintin(2012), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull(2008), Munich (2005), War of the Worlds(2005), The Terminal (2004), Catch Me If You Can(2002), Minority Report (2002), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Amistad(1997), The Lost World(1997), Jurassic Park (1993), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Empire of the Sun (1987), The Color Purple (1985), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Jaws (1975).