Lincoln is not a touch-feely biopic of the much-loved historical icon, and it does not gawk at him with starry-eyed hero-worship, but instead is a rather hard, clear-eyed study of mid-19th Century Realpolitik that has the audacity to depict the most romanticised of all U.S. presidents as - shock and gasp - a human being like other human beings, who could, if he had to, be a sneaky dick in order to get his way. Second surprise: that in making a film about the much-loved historical icon, noted sentimental fool Steven Spielberg would manage to evade each and every single one of the traps into which his filmmaking so readily stumbles, to instead director what is perhaps the most restrained and grown-up movie of his career, and easily the best thing he's made in a decade or longer. The third thing isn't a surprise, though it is gratifying: Daniel Day-Lewis makes a fucking goddamn awesome Abraham Lincoln, not in the "it's a great performance because he resembles a famous person", for although he does, it's also a great performance simply because it's a great performance. If it's not the best acting he's ever done onscreen (though I think it very well might be), it certainly deserves a spot in that conversation.
So, about this Lincoln, then - and that is a bad title, for it promises a much broader, more sweeping narrative of the man's life than we get, which describes only a single month in 1865 (with a few epilogue-like scenes that take us to his assassination in April of that year). This is not a film about a man's life, but about the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, though even that is overstating it: it's a film about how the bill introducing the amendment, abolishing slavery, which had already passed through the Senate, was driven through the House of Representatives by all means necessary, political, ideological, and financial. We see scene upon scene of Lincoln managing his Cabinet, and especially his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn); crossing paths with recalcitrant politicians, be they conservative Republican icon Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), who will only play ball if the President remains open to the possibility of a peace settlement with the Confederate rebels, or be they firebrand radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), who leads a faction demanding abolition right now, not some vague point in the future; and maintaining a prickly relationship with his wife, Mary (Sally Field), a woman of some emotional fragility who has never quite managed to psychically recover from the death by tuberculosis of the couple's third son, William, three years earlier.
The whole thing is not unlike a costume drama version of The West Wing, in its depiction of the intersection between practical politics, moral ideals, and the personal life of those in power, though if anything, Lincoln is even more absorbed by the process of governing than that show was; Oscarbait for wonks, in effect, and quite a damn fascinating thing it is, in that regard. For try as we might, it's hard not to consign important moments in history to a certain detachment from human reality, and if Lincoln did absolutely nothing else for the good besides strip that degree of saintliness away from its subject, that would still be alone sufficient reason to recommend the film. But that is certainly not the only good the film is up to: in fact, it's quite exciting to watch, and like All the President's Men before it, it's a pretty remarkable nail-biter considering that there probably oughtn't be a single person in the audience who doesn't know precisely how it all plays out.
Credit good storytelling and good filmmaking, for Lincoln has both: the storytelling courtesy of Tony Kushner, who does such a fantastic job of distilling all that American mythology into such a tightly-focused scenario ("based in part", according to an oddly specific screen credit, on historian Doris Kearns Goodwins book Team of Rivals), and using such unnervingly contemporary style to knock the dust of respectability from its characters: in the grand tradition of Deadwood, we have here a movie combining a certain deliberately stilted, declamatory, old-fashioned way of speaking, with a tremendous potty mouth, and while Kushner is obliged to keep within the limits of a PG-13 rating, his Lincoln dialogue is crammed with "goddamns" and "shits" and even a couple of "fucks"; Lincoln at one point lightens the mood in a tense room by telling a filthy joke about Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen, thus managing to humanise two separate generations of historically ossified icons in one go.
For that is the point, of course: to lend a human element to these events and people, and to turn a very earnest history lesson into a compulsively watchable political procedural about men prone to the same impatience and outbursts and triumphs and sarcastic witticisms that we all are. Kushner's skill is to do all of this while also leaving Lincoln himself a real movie character, with feelings and depth and all. We're a long way from hagiographies like 1930's Abraham Lincoln, or 1940's Abe Lincoln in Illinois, or even something as top-notch as John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln from 1939; none of that self-conscious myth-making here, just grubby political thrills.
The good filmmaking, of course, is thanks to Spielberg, who long ago had established himself as one of the best mainstream studio filmmakers in the history of the medium; but while Lincoln is plainly the work of an extremely intelligent and gifted director, it is not plainly the work of Spielberg, who clamps down hard on virtually everything that marks out his films, be it gawking shots with misty backlight, or tremulous close-ups with John Williams's score weeping in the background (in fact, Williams's utterly sensible, quietly moving music is almost entirely free of the soaring, borderline-abusive Romanticism that would ordinarily plague a project like this). Only Munich, out of his entire career - the last time he collaborated with Kushner, no less - is similarly denuded of any real sense of the Spielbergian, with the only overt nod to sentiment coming in the very last moments of the film, though it feels earned there and not cloying (and there is, I am aware, a contingent that finds fault with Lincoln's ending, regretting that it actually depicts the night of his assassination; for my tastes, the worse ending would have been to cut away on the portentous shot of Lincoln leaving for Ford's Theater, which would have been too much of a wink to the audience). One need look no farther than 1997's Amistad, the last time Spielberg made a talky 19th Century political drama, to see the huge difference in his approach, and to see how much less effectively this sort of material plays when it's being given the full tearjerker treatment.
Really, the only person involved with Lincoln who seems to want to make the more stridently sentimental version of this movie is Janusz Kaminski, who shoots it like he's hellbent on out-Lubezki-ing Emmanuel Lubezki by shooting all the interiors with period-appropriate lighting, though the effect here is less naturalism, or even poetic realism, than it is a pushy, "look at me and my dusky, filtered shafts of light!" style that is not at all becoming for a talented man for whom I hold great respect.
Otherwise, it's all smart filmmaking, designed to make a hefty if not altogether bloated running time zip by, while getting us as intimately involved with the characters as we possibly can be. And with a uniformly terrific roster of actors filling in even the smallest roles, Lincoln certainly doesn't want for good characters, though despite some amazing turns by several members of the supporting cast - Strathairn and Jones especially - this is still absolutely Daniel Day-Lewis's movie from top to bottom, creating a vision of the president that both destroys and acknowledges the myth of the man - there's more than a little of Henry Fonda's Young Mr. Lincoln performance in here - turning even the most folkloric elements of Lincoln's character, like his tendency to tell folksy put pointed anecdotes in a genial, aw-shucks mode, into the stuff of insightful psychological shading. This is not just Lincoln the Man in place of Lincoln the Myth; it is Lincoln the Man carefully and deliberately cultivating Lincoln the Myth, while it is also a more generalised portrait of the hungry politician doing what he must to accomplish what he wants. It is a devastating characterisation altogether, even more since it finds so much new to say about a figure who has been so thoroughly strip-mined by a century and a half of fuzzy iconography.
Does it have flaws? Sure - Kaminski's cinematography surely isn't an outright merit, and there's a reveal near the end about one of the main characters that plays far too melodramatically for anybody's good. It is great anyway: great as a work of history, great for its dialogue with less historic approaches to the same subject, great because it is so entrenched in the minutiae of 1865 life and politics and yet never for one minute ceases to be a breathtaking entertainment.
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