When it comes to American History, there is likely no man more mythical than that of the country’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. His face has been carved into mountains, plastered on currency, and even been immortalized in a massive Doric-like temple previously reserved for the likes of Greek Gods such as Athena or Hephaestus. To any filmmaker, the idea of even attempting a biopic on such a man is a task that borders on lunacy. It is ever so fitting then, that a filmmaker such as Stephen Spielberg be the one to take this upon his shoulders.
Lincoln’s life story is one primed with a bountiful supply of delicious narratives, so much so that undertaking a full scale approach to its telling would be tantamount to Peter Jackson combining all 3 Lord of the Rings films into just one 2 hour block; it can be done.. but at great risk to the story itself. Lincoln’s tumultuous personal life, early days as a prairie lawyer, and even his debates with senator Stephen A Douglas would all be perfect material for films in themselves. However Spielberg deftly decides to forgo telling the story of Lincoln’s early achievements, and instead thrusts his audience directly into the crux of the man’s life, that being, the abolition of slavery, the end of the Civil War, and the signing of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The film opens on a scene that seems more fitting of a museum exhibit than the big screen. In it we see Abraham Lincoln for the first time as he strikes up conversation with Union soldiers both black and white. Within a 5 minute span we get to hear not only Lincoln’s stance on abolition and civil rights, but the entire Gettysburg address itself as recited word by word from the soldiers. It is a scene that is so pretentiously aware of itself, that it almost becomes insulting to the intelligence of the audience. As terrible as the American education system is, I wish Spielberg and writer Tony Kushner had at least enough faith in their audience to already assume they would know who Abraham Lincoln was, and that they were likely about to see a 2 hour movie dealing with civil rights. Thankfully this embarrassing opening scene meant that the film had nowhere else to go but up, and up it certainly did go.
In school, Lincoln was put up on the same tier of mythical heroes like Beowulf, and Odysseus. In fact, if I hadn’t known better, I would almost believe that my childhood American History books were all edited by Joseph Campbell. I assume this is not an experience unique to just myself, and because of this, the greatest task that our dynamic duo of Stephen Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis would face, would be humanising him on screen, something I felt they did extremely well.
Daniel Day Lewis is almost unrecognizable as Abraham Lincoln, and this is not just a testament to the skillful hands of the film’s makeup department, but also to raw talent of Lewis himself. He is not only able to make us shed any preconceived notions we may have of the former President, but also the vestiges of the other iconic characters he’s played, such as oil tycoon Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood), or the bloody New York tyrant Bill ‘The Butcher’ (Gangs of New York). Instead what we see is a man whose common familiarity makes it increasingly easy for the audience to connect with him. At one time he can be both that awkwardly shaped introverted kid at school, as well as that incessant geriatric relative that likely spits out story after story more to remind himself that they ever happened than for anything else. Mr. Day-Lewis makes it almost impossible not to fall in love with this character, and though his portrayal of Lincoln may not be the greatest role ever, but it is undoubtedly one of the most memorable.
As great as Mr. Day-Lewis is, the real stars of the show are the film’s supporting cast, namely Tommy Lee Jones, who delivers arguably the greatest performance of his career as the radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens. From frame one, Jones ‘s stone faced humor combined with his lion’s share of witty quips and dialogue, make him the instant crowd favorite, and will undoubtedly make him a heavyweight contender for both the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor. Arguments could also be made for Sally Field’s portrayal of Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd, a woman whose madhouse antics have made her legendary in her own right.
One of my favorite things about this film, is that for once Mr. Spielberg, his composer John Williams, and his cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, take a backseat and instead let the narrative and acting drive itself. There wasn’t a whole lot of the showboating that has become so closely associated with a Spielberg production. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when these guys are thrown ridiculous sums of money and left to their own devices, but for once they had a story to tell that necessitated them taking more of supporting role, and their ability to suck up their pride and do this speaks volumes about them. In fact, I had almost gotten to the very end of the film before I even became aware that a Composer or Cinematographer may have ever existed in the first place, and that is no small accomplishment.
However as great as the acting, and technical achievements of this film were, there was still a little part of me inside that had wanted just a bit more. When years ago I had first heard about this movie being made, I remember being excited beyond belief, not because somebody was finally making a movie about Lincoln, but because Spielberg was making movie about Lincoln. The former President’s life may be somewhat glorified in text, but in reality it wasn’t so black and white. Spielberg I felt was in a unique position to do what only somebody with his kind power could do, and that was tell a more unbiased version of the story. Unfortunately, this is not what happened.
To his credit, Mr. Spielberg didn’t shy away from Lincoln’s somewhat corrupt approach to politics. Much of the film follows a trio of slick D.C. lobbyists as they attempt to help Lincoln procure votes for his Amendment in return for cabinet positions. However as admirable as it may be to include this part of the story, Spielberg consistently throughout the film implies that though Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and political lobbying may have been well outside the realm of legality, it was all fine and dandy because his moral compass compelled him. Whether the ends justified the means is a debate best left to historical scholars, but I felt it was Spielberg’s implicit duty to at least allow the audience to form their own opinion on the matter.
Another key problem with the film, was that Spielberg consistently let his loving reverence for Lincoln get in the way of objective storytelling. Throughout the film Lincoln repeatedly takes the stance that he has always been against slavery on both a legal and ethical standpoint. The film makes no mention though of Lincoln as a famed proponent of Colonization over Abolition, and it never makes any mention of public statements advocating the idea of white supremacy. This was epitomized in an 1858 debate with Stephen A. Douglas where he remarked “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in anyway the social and political equality of the white and black races”. Of course many of Lincoln’s statements may have been made in an attempt to better position himself to abolish slavery, but it’s something that Spielberg should have let the audience decide for themselves, instead of whitewashing the subject completely.
Of course there is always the idea that maybe Spielberg’s unambiguously jaded storytelling was paved with good intentions. Perhaps he felt about Lincoln much the same way as Bruce Wayne did toward Harvey Dent at the end of The Dark Knight. For it is easy for somebody like me to call for iconoclasm, but what would this really accomplish in the end? After all, every country has one or two heroes who have become more mythos than man. Is it my place, or even a filmmaker’s place to commit deicide? We can chalk this one up as an important question that the film actually did ask.
Historical arguments aside, there is no mistaking that Lincoln is likely one of the best films of the year. Spielberg, Kaminski, Kahn (Editor), Kushner, and Daniel Day Lewis are to film-making what The Avengers are to the Marvel Universe. They are incredibly powerful on their own, and virtually unstoppable when they come together. For all its failings, Lincoln still is a tactful exercise both in filmmaking as well as acting, and will no doubt be a classroom staple for generations of American schoolchildren to come. I was left a little wanting, but for two and a half hours I found myself both engaged and entertained, regardless of my conflicting feelings on the subject matter. And at the end of the day, that’s just what good filmmakers do.