Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is rarely seen head-on. Often he’s shown from the back, or in profile, or subsumed in light or shrouded in shadow. Always accentuated are his hair, his beard and his height. He’s playing a statue, a breathing monument. That’s not to say that he doesn’t inject the character with humanity or that his performance isn’t alive, but it becomes clear very early on that Day-Lewis and Spielberg have made a conscious choice to make a movie more about the way we feel about the man than the man himself.
Take the title, the weighty, all-encompassing Lincoln, which may seem inadequate when you discover most of its running time is devoted to only a month in the man’s life. This story, which is about the passing of the 13thAmendment abolishing slavery, could easily and perhaps more accurately been titled “The 13th Amendment” or even “Team of Rivals,” after the Doris Kearns Goodwin book the script was taken from, but Lincoln works because that amendment is his legacy, more than any other of his estimable accomplishments. It’s what we think of when we think of Lincoln. Spielberg is after an emotional accuracy more than a factual one (though I have no reason to doubt the exactitude of the movie’s account), and the story of the myth of Lincoln is in getting that amendment passed.
The movie opens on a battlefield on which soldiers viciously attack each other. Their coats are gray and blue but in the mud they are indistinguishable. After the battle ends, two Union soldiers report to a seated man who dutifully listens; they tell him about the battle but also heap upon him their worries, concerns and desires. It’s Lincoln, positioned as he is in his monument, and subtly but powerfully Spielberg establishes many of the themes of the movie in this brief and narratively inconsequential scene. We see Lincoln only from behind at first and the two soldiers are seen from over his shoulder looking up at him. Throughout the movie, characters constantly look up at Lincoln, both reminding us of his personal stature and his mythical presence. Spielberg takes his time in revealing that the man listening to the soldiers is Lincoln, and he will briefly withhold the identities of famous politicians and events a number of times in the movie. The two soldiers are black and represent the two sides of the progressive post-war argument: One is just happy to be fighting for his country; the other wants to know where he’s going to fit into that country when the fighting is done.
This quickly establishes how much will be impossibly asked of Lincoln as he balances ending the war and ratifying the amendment, which would probably not happen if the war was over. All the while, he’s being pulled by too-much-too-soon members of his own party, stubbornly reactionary members of the opposition, the ever-mounting death toll from the war, and his own wife, Mary (Sally Field), who won’t forgive him for being able to continue his job after the death of their son three years ago. Lincoln will spend the movie doing his best to gratify these disparate and demanding concerns.
In his corner is his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) who operates as the political bad cop to Lincoln’s good one. In his party but on opposite ends are Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) and Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). Blair is the leader of the conservative Republicans, some of whom aren’t completely in line with abolition but are required if Lincoln is to get the votes he needs, and Stevens is the leader of the “radical” faction of the party that believes in nothing more insane than true equal rights, an impossible notion that will scare off the conservative Republicans and steel the Democrats against the amendment, which will require bipartisanship if it is to pass. Stevens’ introduction is perfect. He’s been set up because other characters have mentioned him, and the camera opens on a shot of his name, denoting that we are in his office, and characters of progressively more fatuous dress and facial hair add their two cents to a debate; each one elicits a mental “Is that Stevens?” until the camera turns around on a silent Tommy Lee Jones and we realize it must be him.
While Lincoln tries to navigate his own party, he sends Seward to bring shaky Democrats into the fold. Seward dispatches a trio of vote–getters led by W.N. Bilbo (a wonderful James Spader), who harass and bribe with jobs lame duck Democrats who aren’t as committed to their party’s cause. On top of that, Lincoln must deal with his headstrong son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who wants to join the army to the extreme displeasure of the raw and wounded Mary. There’s also the gentle but cutting looks of hope or disapproval from his largely black hospitality staff who let him know nonverbally how intently they are watching his actions. Most pressing, he has the option to strike peace with the C.S.A. and end a war that takes more lives every day, but he has to come to terms with what ending the war prematurely will mean for generations who come after it and to the legacy of the thousands of dead men and grieving widows it has already created. It’s a full plate.
Through it all, Lincoln is able to stay true to his heart without leaving behind any of his citizenry, informing his leadership style with a mixture of folksy wisdom, lawyerly logic and heartfelt appeals to goodness. His purity might have been grating, like a middle-school play about Lincoln, if not for the weight that Day-Lewis gives to him, somehow making him both a man and a deity all at once. He makes his points in stories and parables that Jed Bartlett would kill for (there’s a great one about Ethan Allen and a portrait of George Washington), and he uses his sermonizing as a deflective mode of instilling patience in the hot heads around him, even driving his secretary of war to beg, “No more stories!” Day-Lewis reminded me of Ben Kingsley as the title character in Gandhi (1982), who similarly was able to pay justice to the flesh-and-blood of his character and to the feelings he stirs in people. Lincoln wisely chooses not to show him give the Gettysburg address (though it’s recited by others), because as good as Day-Lewis’ performance is, it’s best not to define that moment for us.
Spielberg also has such a grasp at narrative filmmaking that he, who has to balance all these elements just like Lincoln does, effortlessly glides through the movie. Perhaps it has its fingers in too many cookie jars (Blair’s involvement could be streamlined and the Robert Lincoln subplot feels less essential than the others), but where other filmmakers would get mired in the complicated and labyrinthine political movements, Spielberg and his cameraman Janusz Kaminski create a rich visual scheme that keeps us engaged. There’s very little violence in the movie (the opening battle is the only look at bloodshed we get), but one image involving Robert and a military hospital does help us completely understand the pressure Lincoln is under to end the horror of the war. A great scene between Lincoln and Stevens in the cellar of the White House, wonderfully lit by Kaminski, made me pine for great political discourse. I thought of a quote from a different president in relation to another movie set in this time period but with a very different aim: “It was like writing history with lightning.”