Lincoln– Movie Review
Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner seemed to be concerned that no one knows the story of how the thirteenth amendment was approved by the House of Representatives. So they set out to make the most detailed, lush, political procedural film in ages.
Yes, this film is primarily about the sausage-making that produced the abolition of slavery in the United States. And I am hard-pressed to find another film or television show (The American President, The West Wing, School House Rock) that has made this process so engaging, entertaining, and inspirational, even if that last part comes at the expense of some honesty. Kushner ensures that everyone in the audience understands exactly what the legal and political issues are, but the team makes all that wonkish, policy-laden exposition flow smoothly.
Alongside the names everyone recognizes from textbooks, Kushner has elevated some obscure figures to new prominence. Next to Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses Grant are Civil War-era congressmen like Thaddeus Stevens, a grizzled warrior for racial equality and Fernando Wood, his adversary; personal aides and secretaries; and even a group of political operatives from New York sent to do work that was never meant to be known.
Powering this extended history lesson is Spielberg’s ability to juggle multiple dense plot lines, as well as his singular ability for detailed historical accuracy; and shadowy, emotive camera work of his long-time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. The film is also bolstered by supporting roles from a small army of talented working actors, including James Spader, Michael Stuhlbarg, and even one-off scenes with Elizabeth Marvel and Bill Camp, and Colman Domingo and David Oyelowo.
What is less illuminated in the film is the gargantuan figure that stands at the center of it: Abraham Lincoln remains mostly as opaque and godly as perceived before. Daniel Day-Lewis has a technical mastery of Lincoln’s mannerisms and shines in scenes of folksy humor and restraint, but his performance does not burst from this reserved space nearly often or fully enough. Interactions with his son and wife prod Lincoln deeper, and his Secretary of War calls him out on his never-ending stories; but mostly, Lincoln is regarded reverentially. A scene of him intruding on aides in their bedroom at 3am is played for humor, not really acknowledging the deep depression and anxiety at the heart of the act.
Though the human element may be a little forced, Lincoln remains a towering film of ideas. It aims for universal and contemporary relevance and succeeds, reflecting our own divided nation, belligerent Congress, and messy, unclear path to do what is right.
Did you see Lincoln? What did you think?