It is something of a paradox that American movies — a great democratic art form, if ever there was one — have not done a very good job of representing American democracy. There are exceptions, of course, and one of them is Steven Spielberg’s splendid Lincoln, which is, strictly speaking, about a president trying to scare up votes to get a bill passed in Congress. It is of course about a lot more than that, but let’s stick to the basics for now.
To say that this is among the finest films ever made about American politics may be to congratulate it for clearing a fairly low bar. Some of the movie’s virtues are, at first glance, modest ones, like those of its hero, who is pleased to present himself as a simple backwoods lawyer, even as his folksy mannerisms mask a formidable and cunning political mind.
After a brutal, kinetic beginning — a scene of muddy, hand-to-hand combat that evokes the opening of Saving Private Ryan — Lincoln settles down into what looks like the familiar pageantry and speechifying of costume drama. A flock of first-rate character actors parades by in the heavy woollen plumage of the past. The smaller, plainer America of the mid-19th century is evoked by the brownish chiaroscuro of Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, by the mud, brick and wood of Rick Carter’s production design and by enough important facial hair to make the young beard farmers of 21st-century Brooklyn weep tears of envy.
The most famous and challenging beard of them all sits on the chin of Daniel Day-Lewis, who eases into a role of epic difficulty as if it were a coat he had been wearing for years. It is both a curiosity and a marvel of modern cinema that this son of an Anglo-Irish poet should have become our leading portrayer of archaic Americans. Hawkeye (in Last of the Mohicans), Bill the Butcher (Gangs of New York), Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) — all are figures who live in the dim borderlands of memory and myth, but with his angular frame and craggy features, Day-Lewis turns them into flesh and blood. Above all, he gives them voice. His Lincoln speaks in a reedy drawl that provides a notable counterpoint to the bombastic bellowing of some of his allies and adversaries.
The script, by Tony Kushner, is attentive to the idioms of the time without being too showy about it. Lincoln is eloquent in the manner of the self-taught provincial prodigy he was, his speech informed by voracious reading and also by the tall tales and dirty jokes he heard growing up in the frontier country of Kentucky and Illinois. He uses words like “shindee” and “flib-flub” and likes to regale (and exasperate) his cabinet with homespun parables, shaggy dog stories and bits of outhouse humour. His salty native wit is complemented by the clear and lofty lyricism that has come down to us in his great speeches.
Day-Lewis, for his part, must convey both the human particularity and the greatness of a man who is among the most familiar and the most enigmatic of American leaders. We carry him around in our pockets every day, and yet we still argue and wonder about who he was.
Lincoln the man is, for all his playfulness, prone to melancholy and attracted to solitude. He has a tender rapport with his young son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), and a difficult relationship with the boy’s older brother, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is furious that his parents have forbidden him to fight for the Union cause.
Lincoln’s wife, Mary — he calls her Molly, and she is played with just the right tinge of hysteria by Sally Field — is still grieving the loss of another son, Willie, from illness during the first year of the war, and her emotional instability is a constant worry to her husband.
These private troubles combine with the strains of a wartime presidency to produce a portrait that is intimate but also decorous, drawn with extraordinary sensitivity and insight and focused, above all, on Lincoln’s character as a politician.
This is, in other words, less a biopic than a political thriller, a civics lesson that is energetically staged and alive with moral energy.
The radicals, led by Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), the sharp-tongued chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and an ageing lion of the Abolitionist movement, demand a vote on a constitutional amendment ending slavery. The conservatives in the party, whose grey eminence is Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), are lukewarm at best, preferring to push for peace talks with the Confederacy that evade a decisive solution to slavery.
And the genius of Lincoln, finally, lies in its vision of politics as a noble, sometimes clumsy dialectic of the exalted and the mundane. Our habit of argument, someone said recently, is a mark of our liberty, and Kushner, whose love of passionate, exhaustive disputation is unmatched in the modern theatre, fills nearly every scene with wonderful, maddening talk. Spielberg’s best art often emerges in passages of wordlessness, when the images speak for themselves, and the way he composes his pictures and cuts between them endow the speeches and debates with emotional force, and remind us of what is at stake.
The film places slavery at the centre of the story, emphatically countering the revisionist tendency to see some other, more abstract thing — states’ rights, industrial capitalism — as the real cause of the Civil War. Though most of the characters are white, this is finally a movie about how difficult and costly it has been for the United States to recognise the full and equal humanity of black people.
There is no end to this story, which may be why Spielberg’s much-noted fondness for multiple denouements is in evidence here. There are at least five moments at which the narrative and the themes seem to have arrived at a place of rest. To paraphrase what Woodrow Wilson said of Griffith, Spielberg writes history with lightning.
Go see this movie. Take your children, even though they may occasionally be confused or fidgety. Boredom and confusion are also part of democracy, after all. Lincoln is a rough and noble democratic masterpiece — an omen, perhaps, that movies for the people shall not perish from the earth.
- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones
- Running time: 145 minutes
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