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Spielberg monumentalizes Abraham Lincoln with high key lighting and patient deference to a man who likes to hear himself talk.

Human and Frail

British/Irishman Daniel Day-Lewis gives America’s Great Emancipator an awkward high-stepping gait and a thin tenor voice with a Midwestern twang — a dramatic counterpart to the comic-relief patter of Walter Brennan. As written by Tony Kushner, Lincoln has an uncontrollable urge to speak in parables and anecdotes, making one reconsider him for the proverbial dinner-party-in-heaven guest list. (After the empty-chair fiasco, Eastwood is questionable too, leaving... who? Gandhi and Hendrix?)

Lincoln presides and sometimes goes off on a tangent
Lincoln presides and sometimes goes off on a tangent

We first meet Abe in his socks. He and Mary (Sally Field) are having a quiet night reading and talking. Their youngest son Willie misses his dead brother, and is fascinated by daguerreotypes of beaten slaves. Their son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) returns from school desperately wanting to enlist. Lincoln refuses to let him, the same, he says, as most fathers would. But Lincoln is as motivated by his marriage and his wife’s sanity. Mary might literally go crazy if she loses another son. And Abe knows that the end of the war might be near — the sacrifice of another son would probably be for nought.

This Abe Lincoln is very human, perhaps even “frail,” as a friend described Day-Lewis’ performance. So whence the accusation of “monumentalizing”?

First let’s talk politics.

Playing Politics

Based on part of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Director Steven Spielberg’s movie follows the last few months of Lincoln’s life.

It is November 1864. Lincoln has just won reelection, and the war is going well. But Lincoln wants to get the 13th amendment passed... for many reasons... the most pragmatic of which is so that the U.S. doesn’t have to go to war again to settle the issue; slavery will be off the bargaining table.

The lame-duck session is a window of opportunity. Lincoln calculates that if he can twist the arms of 20 retiring Democrats — maybe offer them with jobs in the coming administration — he’ll have enough votes to ratify the amendment banning slavery.

Three proto-lobbyists (Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes, and James Spader) provide unnecessary comic relief as shadowy political figures making offers on behalf of Lincoln’s team, thus keeping the president out of the muck. Tommy Lee Jones plays Republican representative Thaddeus Stevens, whose fervor for “equality of the races” proves distasteful to many Democrats. (“What’s next? Votes for women?”)

Another obstacle to the House vote is a trio of peace-seeking southerners (including the confederate vice president played by a creepy looking Jackie Earle Haley) known in the movie as the Richmond contingent. They are slowly traveling toward Washington to negotiate a peace. If they arrive before the vote and their intentions become known, some House Democrats will have no reason to support the 13th amendment. Ironically, this gives Lincoln an incentive to prolong the war.

Speechifying

The political situation is complicated. Nuanced, even. Director Steven Spielberg understands that, but by nature he is more of heartstring-tugger than an observer of nuance. Lacking any sort of a visual or cinematic language for political complexity, Spielberg relies — too heavily — on Lincoln’s words.

The first time it happens you might assume it’s a compliment to the audience’s intelligence: yes we can understand a detailed speech. Lincoln agonizes over the Emancipation Proclamation; how it was issued under his war powers and might be not stand up to Supreme Court scrutiny after the war; therefore, the 13th Amendment is crucial. The scene introduces Lincoln’s intelligence, his legal training, and the shades of gray that underlay the Civil War.

On the other hand, it’s a monologue that stops the movie dead in its tracks. Maybe instead of flattering the audience’s intelligence, it’s a case of the director letting the screenwriter get away with murder.

It happens again several times (once it is played for laughs): the movie stops, and Day-Lewis slowly delivers dialogue of great importance. Sometimes, Spielberg and composer John Williams annotate these moments with sotto clarinets or French horns. In these moments Lincoln is not a father lounging in his socks, but a mythologized Giver of Wisdom and the movie, for a time, becomes a civics lecture.

The last time it happens is the last shot of the movie — a scene of Lincoln giving a speech, the screen filled edge to edge with extras, shot from a distance with a telephoto lens, flattening the tableau and making it look like a mosaic. Day-Lewis nearly gets lost in the texture of 19th-century hats. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what the last words of the movie were because I was paying more attention to the image than to the words.

  • A. McLeod: Excellent review. I'm waiting to see what academicians say about it, but as one who rarely goes to the movies anymore because films these days grossly oversimplify history and take other liberties tied to certain agendas I actually liked that "Lincoln" provided some substance and an adequate amount of complexity concerning what was at issue.

    I agree with you that the comic relief was not needed and not only that; it was slap sticky at times including when the three characters you mention ran to the White House--background fiddle music. I was worried a few times that the story would be cheapened by reliance on a certain brand of humor. In the end, it really wasn't, and I enjoyed Lincoln's own humorous side.

    I also agree with you completely that this film mythologizes Lincoln, and I see the danger in that. Yet, I'm fairly certain that this is exactly what the creators of it intended. So, it'll be interesting to see how the public receives this Lincoln. November 17, 2012 reply
  • T.R.: I have three corrections for you. First off, the first time we see Lincoln isn't the bedroom scene i.e. "We first meet Abe in his socks." We first join Lincoln seated at a union army camp and giving audience, of sorts, to two buffalo soliders; the figure he strikes should suggests the seated Lincoln monumentalized in marble at his Washington memorial. Second, you write, "[The Lincoln's] youngest son Willie misses his dead brother, and is fascinated by daguerreotypes of beaten slaves." You identified the youngest son with the dead brother's name, "Willie," when you in fact mean "Tad" i.e. 'Thomas Lincoln.' Third, who knocked "John Lennon" off the heaven dinner party list? November 19, 2012 reply
  • sonny: The son that was still alive was Tad. Willie was the dead one. Please get your facts correct. And "creepy looking" Jackie Earl Haley was playing the creepy looking Alexander Stephens.

    http://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=alexendar+stephens&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8#hl=en&client=safari&tbo=d&rls=en&spell=1&q=alexander+stephens&sa=X&ei=xNCzUOmwIZDMigL5h4HYBA&ved=0CC0QvwUoAA&fp=1&bpcl=38897761&biw=1273&bih=680&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_cp.r_qf.&cad=b&sei=z9CzUMv5JofxiwKGsYDICQ

    And we first met Abe on the battle field. Did you miss the beginning? November 26, 2012 reply
  • movie thinker: your review is a little confusing. In a over-sensational movie bio-pic world, you say Spielberg relies too much on Lincoln's words? Seriously? Tugging at heart strings? very little. Despite that the fact that is incredibly emotional and intense subject matter, and a true story. This is the kind of history movie we've been waiting for, more words (from the historical account) and I would've been fine with all monologues. And do tell us what visual or cinematic language you would've used to show political complexity. Your critique holds such a high a standard it makes me want to see your lincoln movie proposal. Man, i love art too, but when somethings good, just call it good bro. November 17, 2012 reply