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?)
PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language
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.
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.
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.