Boy, this has been the year of Lincoln, hasn't it? So far I've taken it upon myself to review three major Lincoln-related works in 2012: Noah Van Sciver's somber, wonderful The Hypo, the weirdly sincere but not particularly good Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and now Steven Spielberg's take on the final months of the 16th US President, titled simply Lincoln, one of the bigger cinematic surprises of the year.
Not that you'd be able to tell at first — Lincoln opens on a dismal, downright Capraesque scene that climaxes with Union soldiers taking turns reciting the Gettysburg Address to old Honest Abe himself while the music swells and we're supposed to feel something despite the movie being only five minutes in. It's exactly the kind of scene from the Abraham Lincoln movie we always worried/expected Spielberg to make — a cloying groaner of a moment in what would have been a sweeping, triumphant life story of Lincoln from log cabin to fatal head injury that would further deify a guy who's already been on money for 103 years.
But that's not the movie Spielberg made. Instead, he's gone and made something quite terrific and unexpected.
Using Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln as a basis for the proceedings, Spielberg enlists Tony Kushner — who did Angels in America and Spielberg's best non-adventure film, Munich — to script only the final four months of Lincoln's life, focusing on the President's efforts to abolish slavery as the Civil War rages on. Grade school teaches us that Lincoln dropped the Emancipation Proclamation and suddenly the entire Confederate Army burst into flames and then all the newly freed slaves frolicked across the battlefields over the smoldering skeletons of Southern gentlemen. In reality, Lincoln used his "war powers" to declare all slaves free with the Proclamation, but the Thirteenth Amendment actually made slavery illegal in the United States.
The efforts in getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed are the focus of Lincoln, which turns the film into a political drama with more in common with The West Wing than Spielberg's own Amistad — it's a story about the political machinations required to pass legislation that deals with such a major and (at the time) hotly contested issue as slavery.
It's through those machinations that Lincoln shines. More than The West Wing, Lincoln is like a period piece written by Armando Iannucci, where getting anything done in politics is frustrating, full of compromises and stubborn personalities and thus appears, for the most part completely futile as, in this film's case, abolition is considered what contemporaneous folk would call a "folly" and the key to getting other politicians on your side is to concede to ideas you don't even necessarily believe in. More to the Iannucci point, the politicking is also hysterical, as Kushner scripts a lot of snappy, gripping dialogue and glorious insults delivered in mid-1800s speak. If you loved the repartee in the Coens' True Grit as much as I did, Lincoln will prove a pornographic experience.
Dramatizing this process involves an army of character actors to play myriad Representatives and Lincoln administration cabinet members, and as a result Lincoln boasts one of the strongest casts in memory, with all manners of entertaining adult white men coming out of the woodwork to period piece their asses off. The MVP of Lincoln is most certainly Tommy Lee Jones as the staunch egalitarian congressman Thaddeus Stevens, whose wit is as sharp as his wig is obvious, while Sally Field does an amazing job as Mary Todd Lincoln that will certainly go unappreciated considering the circumstances. The most fun scenes go to James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson as the trio of men enlisted to do some underhanded politicking (read: bribes) to make sure pivotal members of the opposing party vote "yea."
And if that wasn't enough, we have:
· David Straithairn as William Seward, Lincoln's steadfast Secretary of State/straight man
· Lee Pace as the biggest dick in Congress, one of the few grown men without facial hair
· Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Lincoln's oldest son, ignored by his father but banned from enlisting, to his chagrin
· Walton Goggins as a spineless bumpkin congressman
· Jared Harris as U.S. Grant — a shock to those of us who know him best from Mad Men
Okay, now that that's out of the way, we can talk about Daniel Day-Lewis*, whose performance as Abraham Lincoln will sweep awards season. And I don't mean that in a cynical way — I mean that this is an astonishing performance from someone who's already achieved Greatest Living Actor status. What known method actor Day-Lewis does as Lincoln goes beyond acting — he becomes Abraham Lincoln in such a way that the thought never, ever occurs that this is the same guy who played Daniel Plainview and My Left Foot.
And his Lincoln is unconventional compared to typical representations of him — hardly the deep-voiced Illinois Moses we'd expect, this Abraham Lincoln is a gangly, loveable dork with a weird voice, a magnetic personality and a tendency for delivering long, metaphorical anecdotes whenever a situation calls for it. It's such an oddly specific performance that it's easily and even tempting to believe that that's how Lincoln was. This is going to prove a defining portrayal of the man.
This is a Steven Spielberg movie, but Lincoln finds him in "Ron Howard making Frost/Nixon" mode where the script and the performances carry the rest of the film, allowing Spielberg to play puppeteer rather than intrude on the film with needless flashiness or other indulgences. With cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn, the trio tread lightly on the film, opting for lots of wide master shots of scenes with minimal cuts. This is the sort of film where the performances are crucial — not just line delivery but reactions — that rendering conversations shot-reverse-shot would ruin the whole thing.
That said, Lincoln is unmistakably Spielberg, and the man is above all else a moviemaker, so we have a film that toils for you to not feel its 150 minute runtime. While Kushner is credited with the script, it's hard not to see James Spader dodging gunshot
s from devoted anti-abolitionist congressmen and not think of stuff like Harpo falling through roofs in The Color Purple (which is decidedly not a comedy) or any time something goes hilariously wrong for Indiana Jones (which is often). Spielberg is a master entertainer, and Lincoln really straddles the line between high-minded prestige picture and rousing flick without feeling like pandering.
In any other year Lincoln would be hands-down the best movie of the year, but this is 2012 and, as I've stated before, competition is fierce. Until hindsight sorts out the true classics from the chaff, Lincoln may have to settle for being merely a really great movie with a disgustingly tight script, an outstanding cast and a central performance that makes the word "definitive" seem like I'm putting it mildly.
*Had this film been made a couple years earlier like it was supposed to, we would have had Liam Neesons as Abraham Lincoln. While I like the guy, considering what we got, that would have been a very dark timeline indeed.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.