Spielberg’s latest effort Lincoln seems to be the result of some Oscar-crazed mad scientist intent on formulating a mathematically perfect movie, with every conceivable component precisely calibrated to appease the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This film also is burdened with the weighty responsibility of reversing Spielberg’s ever-slipping critical acclaim which has been on the decline since 2008’s widely-reviled (though not entirely by this critic) Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls. Audiences suddenly realized that they had been taking him for granted and the once infallible became fallible as Spielberg began making poor choices across the board, the first of coarse being letting Lucas within 101 ft. of his screenplay. And yet despite his now uneven track record Spielberg has always been consistent in his fascination and defense of human justice. Passing over the more obvious examples (Schindler’s List, The Color Purple, Amistad), his more genre-inclined films also demonstrate his deep-seated desire to portray social equality, whether it’s through Haley Joel Osment being unfairly mistreated for being a silicon and not carbon-based life form, or Tom Cruise becoming the victim of a flawed justice system. All this finally leads to Lincoln not being the desperate grasp for past glory by a down-and-out director (as some claim), but instead the fitting culmination of a variety of themes and beliefs held by a man of extraordinary vision and talent.
Spielberg begins the film with a short battle scene in the rain, where men both black and white struggle and slip in the mud wielding bayonets. The sequence, though I found it somewhat safe compared to his brutal opening D-Day scene from Saving Private Ryan, demonstrates how low the Civil War had become while nearing its end, setting the stage for Lincoln’s determination to end this bloody conflict. The entire rest of the film focuses on the passing of the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives, and follows this historic motion with minute detail. There are no epic vampire battles here, but instead an excruciatingly frustrating uphill battle which faces opposition of every sort. The primary obstruction to this law being passed is that the South is pursuing peace talks which would end the war, but allowing the South to reenter the Union would mean allowing all their slave-owning state representatives to vote on the 13th amendment, amounting to a death sentence for the bill. Lincoln goes on the inform his cabinet that his Emancipation Proclamation was made on shaky legal ground, and without making slavery constitutionally illegal slaves will still be considered personal property. Southern lawyers could then reject his Emancipation Proclamation and he would be powerless to take away “personal property” from his own citizens. And yet every day hundreds of Americans young and old are shedding their blood in a conflict which he could end immediately. This catch-22 takes a heavy emotional toll on Lincoln, and Daniel Day-Lewis allows this burden to effect his already masterful performance physically, walking with a slight hunch and laboriously standing up as if the weight of the world rested on his shoulders. You truly believe that Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln entered politics to do good, to guide this nation on a particular path informed by strong unflinching moral convictions. As I watched I couldn’t help but think of our recent election and the candidates who pursed the presidency more as a prize to be won than as a chance to foster a strong and moral people.
Spielberg for this film amassed a small army of supporting actors to inhabit the many famous historical characters involved in the passing of the 13th Amendment, with many faces I was happy to see. Sally Field was convincingly crazy as Mary Todd Lincoln still in mourning for her son Willie, and Joseph Gordon Levitt played her eldest son Robert, though his small role seemed a waste of his talents. Tommy Lee Jones added much needed humor as Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, spewing zingers on the House floor with grumpy old-man abandon. I was very pleased to see some of my favorite TV actors get minor roles, such as Jared Harris (Pryce from Mad Men) as Ulysses S. Grant and Wolton Goggins (Boyd from Justified) as Rep. Clay Hutchins. All these actors and many more helped round out Lincoln and give loving care to the details which are precisely this film’s strong point.
Only go to see Lincoln if you know what you’re in for. It’s heavily procedural and is clearly made by historians for historians (or budding historians). Spielberg does add his signature flair to spice up certain scenes and create tension and drama, but it is 2 ½ hrs long and we already know how it ends. I was fascinated with the details and social commentary, and the time flew by for me. I was the only young person in the theater, with everyone else being in their 50’s and up except for one dad who brought his young son. Focusing solely on the 13th Amendment has been criticized, but I found it to be a bold choice from a director who I assumed would have extensively covered the war and the famous battles. I suppose Spielberg was just worn out with battle sequences after War Horse. Finally, while this is by no means a criticism of the film, I would have done the ending differently. The film near the beginning portrays in trance-like imagery a recurring dream of Lincoln’s, where he is standing alone on a boat approaching a shining shore, all the while being keenly aware that he is utterly alone. This sequence is harshly contrasted with the rest of the film in all its realism. Then at the end of the film Daniel Day-Lewis tells Sally Field that he dreams of visiting the Holy Land. It would have been a daring move to make the film go full circle with an ending dream sequence depicting Lincoln finally reaching that Promised Land from his first dream. Perhaps the scene could have been biblical in nature, him witnessing Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. Of course that is exactly the kind of sentimentality which Spielberg is most commonly criticized for, so perhaps it’s best to leave the filmmaking to the filmmakers. (B+)
PS: At one point Lincoln uses Euclid and his Common Notions to make a point. It was amazing.