Lincoln (M). Director: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathair, James Spader. 150 minutes
Abraham Lincoln (Day-Lewis) sits on a raised platform at a shabby Union military encampment and absorbs the entreaties of two uniformed black soldiers. One wearily but articulately notes the inevitable but slow progress of change: if today white Americans can tolerate black soldiers, in 100 years they might embrace a black general. You can almost hear the unspoken denouement to this speech: 'One day we might even have a black president!'
They are joined by two white soldiers; Lincoln groupies who saunter over wide-eyed and stuttering. They begin to recite the Gettysburg address to him: already, it seems, Lincoln is on the cusp of legend. This impression is cemented as the black soldier picks up the speech's refrain. Lincoln watches him depart with an expression of quiet awe, as if the encounter has reminded him he is a man with his hands on the levers of destiny.
Spielberg's Lincoln is more a political drama than a biography — split in two it would have sat nicely as an HBO miniseries. It covers the final months of Lincoln's life, focusing on his efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution to abolish slavery; a centrally moral endeavor requiring political maneuvering and even underhandedness to achieve. Tony Kushner's screenplay maps these intricacies deftly and compellingly.
And yet, a confession: while acknowledging Spielberg's skill as a filmmaker, I tend to find his serious films overly contrived in a way that is distracting. This is true even of the relatively subdued Lincoln. I say this against the weight of critical consensus: the excellent American critic Richard Alleva, for example, was moved by the humanity captured in a scene where Lincoln suffers a reprimand from a grouchy colleague, then seconds later is seen clasping the man's hand as they receive bad news. But I find this kind of laboured juxtaposition irksome.
The same could be said of the aforementioned opening scene. The unlikely scenario of these young men having already memorised the Gettysburg address and standing in the rain to regurgitate their adored president's own words back to him seems a most artificial way to illustrate the reverence in which Lincoln is held. These kinds of stylistic flourishes lend Lincoln a dull sentimentality that belies its great screenplay and excellent performances.
The performances in fact are the best reason to see the film. Day-Lewis, who deserves the Oscar that is coming his way for his embodiment of Lincoln, is all charisma and nuance, capturing the grandfatherly manner, the gangliness, the subtle fierceness, even a hint of megalomania as he looms like a storm cloud over his just cause. Field, as Abe's sickly and passionate wife Mary, acts her heart out to keep up, but in the end simply overacts.
Among various fine performances (Strathairn and Spader stand out in serious and comedic roles respectively) Jones steals the show. As Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans and an abrasive Lincoln ally, he gets to deliver the most cutting ripostes to their Democrat rivals, and brings a fiery passion to the quest to end slavery. His reaction when the Amendment is finally passed is also the film's most touching moment.
A post script: Lincoln forms an unlikely pair with another current film about slavery. The witty dialogue and exaggerated cathartic violence of Quentin Tarrantino's Django Unchained are anchored by soulful performances from Jamie Foxx as the freed slave Django, and Christoph Waltz as the enlightened bounty hunter who helps him to free his enslaved wife from a sadistic plantation owner (Leonardo DiCaprio). Where Lincoln hums with quiet patriotic fervour, Django is pure irreverence and a vicious 'up yours' to the idiocy of white supremacy.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street.