Spielberg, Daniel Day-Lewis go Presidential


When one considers the fact that President Lincoln is the most written about and oft-depicted figure in U.S. history, one is tempted to offer director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner a nice shiny penny for their thoughts on why they’ve seen fit to forge their own version of the man.  After all, what aspects of this rail thin rail-splitter from Illinois have we yet to dramatically encounter?  

Granted, this lean, biographic work focuses only upon what turned out to be the final moments of the man’s life, as opposed to the long-rumored sprawling life story many of us anticipated.  But even still, the tale of what made this president Great is familiar to even most American school children.  (At least, it should be.)  With this film, however, we get not only a sense of Abraham Lincoln the Great Emancipator, but of equal importance, Abraham Lincoln the uncertain sympathetic yarn-spinning flawed man, just trying to hold it all together.

It’s 1865, and the Civil War is raging on (and on… and on…), and Lincoln, has become quietly convinced of the moral imperative inherent in ending slavery.  He must do everything he can to end the war, but if he ends slavery first, the odds of the southern states willingly re-uniting with the north decrease considerably.  This is a catch-22 of almost incomprehensible magnitude – one of the biggest and most soul wringing in all of U.S. history – riding heavily on the shoulders of one increasingly frailing man.  We all know the outcome, but that makes this depiction no less electric.  The film nails it – by the end, when the political votes are being counted, the effective storytelling tension stands on par with Spielberg’s most harrowing adventure film sequences.

This is an impressive film for not just its restraint from Spielberg’s usual visual stylizations, but for its slow-burn intensity, engulfing the viewer in the searing passions and political mechanizations that were so intricately tethered to the issue of abolition in America.  Although the film effectively is scene after scene of people talking in rooms, there are no bad scenes, no fat to be trimmed.  Lincoln strikes the proper and difficult balance of being both a winning character drama, and an engaging political process film.  The fact that we’re witnessing a highly plausible version of 1865 politics – a time when history actually was being written with lightning (sorry D.W. Griffith) – is almost gravy.

Kushner, an acclaimed playwright (“Angels in America”) and Spielberg screenplay veteran (Munich), brings a certain confident stage-friendliness to the proceedings. Under the sure-handed direction of Spielberg, however – finally getting to realize one of his longstanding passion projects – it’s never, ever dull or “confined”.  A great portion of that credit must also go to the great Daniel Day-Lewis, the screen’s best Lincoln to date, as well as the spectacular supporting cast (including David Strathairn as William Seward, Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Hal Holbrook as Preston Blair, and James Spader as W.N. Bilbo, and Best Supporting Actor-worthy Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens) – not a wrong pick in the bunch.  

Although Spielberg, a political liberal, deliberately sidestepped current events by waiting until after the 2012 U.S. presidential election had ended before releasing this admirable depiction of a Republican, Kushner has claimed that in doing this project, he’s interested in making a statement about today.  The answer to the question of whether or not Kushner’s succeeded at that will most likely depend on how much each viewer happens to know about the writer’s personal life, and then based upon that, where his perceived social interests might lie.  For this reviewer, there is one scene (and one scene only) that sticks out like a slightly sore thumb in this regard.  The scene works, even as it breaks the so-carefully cast historical spell just long enough to see the author’s fingerprints.  Whether what is happening in this scene – which I’m not revealing here – is historically accurate or not, feels almost beside the point.  A current-day metaphor floats to the surface in a moment that is boldly out of character for the rest of the film.  And that’s the minor misstep in the whole of Lincoln.    

Spielberg being Spielberg, he rightfully has the greatest talent in the business at the ready for any project he chooses to do.  Although Spielberg utilizes the controlled glimmering ambiance of his longtime cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to great effect, it’s never distracting or artificial.  Indeed, through the ambiance, the performances, the art direction, and tone, it is like travelling back in time to the end of the Civil War to watch these events unfold as they actually might have, back room conversations and all.

While it’s true that Spielberg, with decades of crowd-pleasing hits (Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, the Indiana Jones series) is made of money – more than the rest of us could ever fathom – offering a penny for his thoughts on Abe Lincoln is too cheap.  Up it to a nice, vintage, silver half dollar, or even a five-dollar bill, and then you’d be closer.


Although I may appear to be seizing on one single instance of what I think Tony Kushner may be metaphorically exploring, the parallels of this 1865′s nation divided and our own situation today (with these impassioned tantrum threats of separating into Red State/Blue State countries, or a Texas secession, or whatever other fly-by-night ideas the typical post-election emotional flares have wrought) are not altogether unlike the Civil War trauma of Lincolns’s time. May we pray that we NEVER arrive to that place again.

As Lincoln opens, red state denizens may desire a clean break from the “hippie collectivists”, and likewise, the blue state die-hards may wish to say “good riddance” to those people. But the fact that American CAN be different yet united is essential, and THAT is what we must work to hold on to, even as definitive conclusions MUST be reached. Like the politics Lincoln grapples with, our politicians today must also command and concede through a sea of negotiation, compromise and standing one’s ground.

Stand back and squint at Lincoln’s conundrums of 1865, and we’ll see that today’s problems, while considerable, don’t quite measure up… yet. In this sense, Lincoln may be a warning for us to heed. Let history, and God’s will, be our guide.