Lincoln begins much where Steven Spielberg’s last film, War Horse, left off. Glimpses of war are followed by overt attempts of false sentiment. And at the start of a 2 ½ hour long film, trepidation within me brewed. But what follows is a methodical descent into a world of grim politicking, whereupon charismatic figures and watershed landmarks are realized with stunning clarity. Lincoln is Steven Spielberg’s finest film in well over a decade, as he exercises restraint and control in a world of chaos and indecision.
Less a portrait of the man and more a cunning statement on the nature of gridlock democracy, Lincoln perhaps doesn’t resonate so much as a character piece due to the vast talent on screen. Tommy Lee Jones, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, John Hawkes, Hal Holbrook, and Sally Field are among the many notable actors on display, with plenty of other character actors populating the landscape. As actors attempt to chew the scenery around them, it’s Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln who brings 19th century politics to a grounded reality. Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln as a soft-spoken, mannered, and brilliant politician who observed the people around in a manner that allowed him to maneuver accordingly. Broiled in tumultuous debates with contrarian personalities, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln serves as an excellent contrast to his overt displays of acting in There Will Be Blood as Daniel Plainview– even as the two characters possess a similar desire to manipulate and strategize as a means of achieving a larger agenda. But under the guide of Spielberg’s direction and Tony Kushner’s excellent scripting, the moral high ground that Lincoln takes is one of compromise - everyone is burdened with feelings of regret.
The general grimness subverts my own preconceived notions of Spielberg’s overt sentimental pandering. From War Horse to The Color Purple, I’ve often found myself at odds with his attempts of moralizing complex tragedies. His best films, AI: Artificial Intelligence, Jaws, Minority Report and even Catch Me If You Can acknowledge the difficulties in achieving idealistic virtues. Lincoln reaches the same exceptional quality of his best films but, as if in sync with its thematic intent, achieves a measure of compromise in Spielberg’s oeuvre. Not averse to sweeping sentiment, Spielberg deploys John Williams’ subtle score as a means of highlighting Lincoln’s heroics, though with Kushner’s sharp scripting, the audience is afforded the opportunity to see him politicking as he offers jobs and promotions in exchanges for votes.
Kushner, Spielberg, and Day-Lewis instill a level of humanity and ground a mythical figure. Abraham Lincoln’s contributions and overall presence in American history are realized in Lincoln, but so are the tumultuous months leading to the passing of the 13th amendment. As General Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris) notes in the final act of the film, the last year that he saw the president, it looks as if he aged by ten. The strains of achieving a measure of social change weather even the most resilient souls. And it’s here where Spielberg’s sympathy plays operate at their finest – in a scene involving Lincoln and two telegraphers, he posits existential questions on the nature of being born into a specific time and place. One of the telegrapher’s note that Lincoln’s presence and birth may very well have been preordained – to which Lincoln walks away, hunched over and weary, exposing himself as just as human as anyone else.