There is a special adult charge to watching a really well done political thriller. With Lincoln, Spielberg must dance a fine line between crafting a mundane political story—which can play more interminably than Tupperware parties—and his natural inclinations lately toward the saccharine, the overindulgent fawning and reverence for the subject matter and its protagonist.
Spielberg doesn’t always succeed here, particularly in the latter department. For all his Lincoln has a few persistent warts here and there, he’s overall pretty saintly. John Williams’s score is terrible, a lazy product that could easily fit into any other grand and enlightening epic movie of the last twenty or so years.
And although Tony Kushner’s screenplay is blessedly intelligent, the speechifying can overwhelm the piece occasionally. However, Kushner can’t resist poking a little fun that salvages this, such as Edwin Stanton’s (Bruce McGill’s) incredulous outburst when Lincoln decides to natter on during a taut wait for news from the battlefield: “No! No! You’re…you’re going to tell another story!” Really, it’s only during Lincoln’s repeated orations dripping with homey wisdom that occasionally tests the audience's patience; I doubt anyone much minds Tommy Lee Jones’s Thaddeus Stephens tearing a new one into the pompous idiots around him with his gleefully vindictive epigrams (Jones has to be a lock-in for Best Supporting Actor).
The few stock black characters are either one-note, silent, and persevering, or else eloquent and righteous to the point where they, too, are more saintly martyrs than a people frustrated and consumed with rage fighting for freedom, capable of messy displays of ugly anger just like the rest of humanity. There is a lingering disappointment when you discover that Spielberg was originally going to focus the film on Lincoln’s relationship with Frederick Douglass only to scrap it later on. Though the plot here is tight and gripping, we really lose the sense that black people were an actual, effective body in procuring their own freedom; here, the wise white man and his team of equally milky toadies save the day once more. Couldn’t Gloria Reuben’s Elizabeth Keckley, an African-American and a woman, have shown any other traits in her few scenes than measured, sad nobility? Wouldn’t a well-placed smirk of self-assured contempt have played much better than her stoically teary-eyed exit from the House of Representatives when Lee Pace’s Fernando Wood calls her race inferior?
But damn, when the movie works, which I’d venture to say is most of the time, it works.
Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography has been rightfully lauded, the colors very subtly saturated, just enough to evoke a Ken Burns feel but stark enough to feel immediate. The pace is smart and quick, yet Spielberg knows when to close in and linger on a shot.
The performances are uniformly superb. Daniel Day-Lewis wrings out a sad charm from Lincoln’s tired, willowy body, with a wiry strength that makes his few shows of temper believable. (He also makes me slightly attracted to Abraham Lincoln, which I’m not sure I’m cool with). His tall, ambling form, with its loping gestures and weathered face suggest something almost Frankensteinian, but his gentle, lilting grace makes him strangely ethereal at the same time.
Sally Field is nothing short of amazing as Mary Todd Lincoln. Perhaps the best scene (certainly the most shockingly intense) is the confrontation between she and Abe over their son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) enlisting. There’s a focused frenzy to Field’s work here as she digs up Lincoln’s bones and unapologetically hurls them at him, from the haunting massacre of Cold Harbor to his threat to institutionalize her over her complete breakdown after their son Willie’s death.
Jones dominates as Stephens, far more of a moral backbone to the piece than Lincoln. The President may have the patience and soft-spoken manners we associate with morality, but when at war, morality is ugly and passionate in its expression—like Stephens. The ultimate politician like Lincoln, forced to be emotionally unbiased, is in truth seldom moral but pragmatic instead. I could say that Thaddeus Stephens is the bristling, emotionally honest Dr. McCoy to Lincoln's driven and fair Captain Kirk, but that would be dorky.
Day-Lewis, Field, and Jones are the three central performances, but this is an ensemble piece, and I can’t remember a recent movie with a more effective supporting cast. David Strathairn’s William Seward, Lincoln’s right-hand man, is finicky and anxious, often comically exasperated by his boss’s big ideas, but we’re never once meant to take him as a joke. Glorious James Spader brings his entire unique, alien brand of smarminess to vote-baiter W.N. Bilbo, blending right into 19th Century America without seeming that much different from his contemporary self.
Though Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee don’t have much screen time for the two main fighters of the war, their actors (Jared Harris and Christopher Boyer respectively) look so much like their characters that they lend a genuine impact to the surrender. Pace and Peter McRobbie’s George Pendleton make a nicely contemptible team of villains. Little Gulliver McGrath (last seen by me as the disturbed David Collins in Dark Shadows) is appropriately cute and touching as young Tad Lincoln. The most heartbreaking moment is when a flustered, horrified stage manager abruptly and publicly informs Tad, along with the audience at a children’s showing of Aladdin, that the boy’s father has been shot (spoiler, Lincoln dies). McGrath’s absolute harrowing despair hits home in a big way.
Yet I agree with almost every other critic that the film should have ended before this, should have ended with the shot of Lincoln walking away from us down the hall for the last time. But Spielberg can’t resist pouring on the syrup that he doused Neeson in during the “one more” scene in Schindler’s List; yet while that scene was genuinely heart-tugging for all its overdone piety, I inwardly groaned when the image of Lincoln orating on the platform at his second inauguration appeared in the flickering candle by his deathbed. That shot was sort of the sadder, more spiritual cousin to the rat scampering in front of the White House at the end of The Departed (Ralph Wiggum: “The rat stands for obviousness!”).
Although countless history buffs will nit-pick the details, and others rightfully point out the woefully un-fleshed out black characters, Lincoln is overall an astounding success for what it is. The dialogue is crisp and the actors deeply entrenched in their roles, so that we are genuinely apprehensive along with them about whether or not that controversial13th Amendment will pass.
But most importantly, who would have known that James Ashley, the Republican leader given the task by Lincoln to rouse his party to pass that very amendment, would then sink so low as to turn Libertarian, cooking meth for the notorious Gustavo Fring and marrying that awful stalker Mel? However, he at least made one masterpiece in his lifetime: