There is one scene of the Civil War itself in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, one scene of drawn out brutality, of union soldiers fighting confederates in the rain and the mud, ending with a face being stamped down into the muck to drown. That is how the film begins. It is the only scene of the war, but it is clear from his very first appearance that Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has been fighting the war for a very long time.
Lincoln is canon Americana. His animatronic likeness lives on Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. Since 1965 it has delivered sonorous renditions of his speeches in climate controlled majesty. But a century prior, a real man carried that name. Of rustic heritage, that man acceded to the presidency with less than 40% of the popular vote, and faced a most profound division in his nation. Lincoln introduces us to that Lincoln and depicts the last four months of that life. Yet rather than historical biography, the film unfolds as a chamber drama about the passage of the 13th Amendment. Though misnamed, the film is much richer for it.
Disappearing into his role is expected of Day-Lewis, an accomplished actor who has played such disparate characters as Christy Brown (My Left Foot), the gleefully terrifying Bill the Butcher (Gangs of New York) and the horrid Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) with equal aplomb. He is that rarity in Hollywood, a virtuoso actor. Spielberg utilizes him perfectly as the anchor of an ensemble. No scene with Lincoln passes without the camera finding a way to show how ungainly the man is, how incongruous to his settings despite his authority, and yet how softly he enters and passes through the rooms of the White House. Here Lincoln is a man well loved by his army, well despised by his opponents, and a curious but compassionate individual to his staff. He is fond of telling parables to ease tempers, and Day-Lewis absorbs the room while he does so, pulling both his audiences in with ease and relish. (It is only afterwards that we remember that he is a lawyer, and no matter how sincere, we realize how such a man could come to the highest post in the land. The man is practiced at manipulation, triumphantly so.) Commending Day-Lewis for a fine performance may seem old hat at this stage in his career, but it is a career of stark highs, this being his most recent.
Lincoln’s desire to pass the 13th amendment (outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude) at the tail end of his first term is a matter of pragmatism that the film does not shy away from. However ideal the equality of men, Lincoln decides that the amendment is the surest means to end the Civil War. It is not the only way, and much internal strife is wrought within his circle over an impending bargain that can be made with a delegate of Confederates led by Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earl Haley in a minor role). The Republicans more or less unified on the matter, the next House has already been elected and awaits its inauguration, so Lincoln must utilize all his engines to win the 20 Democratic votes needed to pass the 13th. Cue back alley pork & bribery.
Hired surreptitiously by Lincoln’s Secretary of State (David Strathairn), the back alley gophers to carry out this task arrive in the trio of W.N. Bilbo (James Spader), Richard Schell (Tim Blake Nelson), and Robert Latham (John Hawkes). These three give the picture its refreshing moments of fun, with James Spader easily stealing every scene he’s in. They also aid the audience in understanding what the stakes are and just what, exactly, is the score.
As Americans (and anyone in 2010 who actually watched The Conspirator), we are well aware of how this story ends. But as in Shakespeare’s time, what distinguishes the familiar play is how it is told. Lincoln is that rare historical drama that allows one to believe that people living in previous centuries were no different from ourselves. The Civil War was more than a series of battlefields: It was a time to be lived through, a time not exempt from moments of levity, nor free from politicking as usual. Tony Kushner’s rich dialogue is complemented by the beautiful cinematography of Janusz Kaminski, who paints the screen with shafts of crepuscular sunlight piercing the freezing White House, shows us bodies torn by injury, disease, and grief, and the intimate rooms where they reveal their hurts and aspirations.
It is a period film in the sense that it offers a brief glimpse into how our history may have occurred. The end is universal: The hope to leave this world better than we found it.
Based in Part on Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Directed by Steven Spielberg
A Dreamworks/Fox Film
For more film reviews, check out Pierce Nahigyan’s Article Archive