A Director, an Actor and an Icon Clothed in Immense Power in Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln…in Spielberg’s perfect light.

Steven Spielberg is a director/producer clothed in immense power.  He has carte blanche to do whatever his heart desires in Hollywood after years of pleasing audiences.  Sometimes his whims and faults get the better of him – as lame attempts to resurrect past haunts (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) or return to childhood wonder (The Adventures of Tin Tin) often are rendered mute in artifice and strained sentiment.  Yet, when left to his own devices in pursuit of his most sincere ambitions, once in a blue moon, Spielberg is able to pull a rabbit out of his magician’s hat.  He did it with Schindler’s List.  And he has done it again here with Lincoln – perhaps the crowning achievement of his career and the greatest American film since Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.

Not surprisingly, like There Will Be Blood, Lincoln is anchored by an impossibly great performance by Daniel Day Lewis.  If Lincoln’s political successes (among them the passing of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery, a process brought to painstaking and lively light here in the film) teach us anything, it’s that no matter how much power one is clothed in…nobody can do it alone.  There must be compromise, teamwork, and appeals to individual sentiments to achieve the greater good.  Spielberg, wizened in his advancing years, knows this all too well – and he leans brilliantly on the whip-smart script from playwright Tony Kushner (based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals), his usual brood of cohorts in John Williams and Janusz Kaminski, and an amazing ensemble cast of supporting players that seems to have pilfered every great TV and film actor either currently working or who hasn’t had a meaty role in years.

I could wax on and on about the cast without even touching on Daniel Day Lewis.  Witness Michael Stuhlbarg (so plotting and powerful as Arnold Rothstein in Boardwalk Empire) cast against type as a soft-voiced Kentucky Congressman or James Spader gnaw with gusto into the colorful role of W. N. Bilbo – vote wrangler extraordinaire.  Then there are Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens and Sally Field as Mary Todd – both appearing to be exorcising all of the horrible roles they’ve done in their careers and reminding us why they are Oscar winners and perhaps should be again.  Around every corner there seemed to be someone I recognized from a TV show I currently love or used to love or having teleported directly from the cast of There Will Be Blood – and every single one of them is acting as if this is the last great job they might ever land.

And then there is Daniel Day Lewis.  A man most famous for playing the most complex of villains – Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York and Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood – now must resurrect arguably the nation’s most iconic and mythologized President and make him human.  This is the President who led us out of the Civil War, who ended the great evil of slavery in America, and who redefined the powers of the office for better and for worse depending on your views.  It brings to mind the haunting words of Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, who divined the promise of a great nation in her colonial fever dream of a novel, A Mercy, when one bereft character laments her identity in the New World, “In full.  Unforgiven.  Unforgiving.  No ruth, my love.  None.  Hear me?  Slave.  Free.  I last.”  Because of his historical significance, Lincoln is a character who shows no ruth to the performer – so who better a performer than one famous for his ruthless characters to portray perhaps the most compassionate man the Presidency has ever born who brought the descendants of Morrison’s character to freedom…at last?   Here in the world Spielberg and his team have crafted for Lincoln to inhabit, we see the man – the greatness and the faults, the pain and the struggles – and Day Lewis portrays the man with the most delicate of restraint that holds up a great internal fortitude – something the real Lincoln must’ve truly possessed to have weathered the storms of his time and to have achieved what he did.

And compromise and restraint are two of the film’s most powerful themes.  Spielberg shows great restraint in his handling of the brief but poignant battles scenes, the well documented but not overwrought domestic issues that haunted the Lincoln family, Lincoln’s touching relationship with his son Tad and all of those elements that a younger Spielberg would’ve mined for greater sentiment that in the context of this film would’ve rung hollow.  Likewise, John Williams’ score never raises to those epic swells he is most famous for, and Janusz Kaminski (who for years I was convinced was on a personal mission to blind me with his unique style of lightning scenes but seems to have turned a page for the better with last year’s War Horse) is gloriously restrained here in the natural lighting of kerosene lamps, candles and smoke-filled chambers of power.  The set designs and the costumes are impeccable down to the most minute detail – but they look real – and you feel as if you could almost touch the weathered felt of the iconic stove-pipe hats.

Meanwhile, that restraint shown by Spielberg and the production crew is made all the more powerful for the few judiciously placed scenes of barn-burning acting showmanship scattered about the sprawling film chronically intimately the political process of passing an amendment.  Sally Field has multiple moments where she redefines our collective vision of Mary Todd – showing both her command of the politics around her and the battles with her own inner demons – and one scene where she breaks down with Lincoln in the famous bedroom over the fate of their eldest son allows Day Lewis to shine in the midst of her righteous madness and sent shivers down my spine.  There are also a number of great scenes on the House debate floor where Tommy Lee Jones plays off the writhing vitriol of his rivals, trading barbs and insults that left me chuckling or gobsmacked in awe of their power.  The fact that one can’t tell if some of the dialogue is straight from historical transcript or all in the imagination of Kushner is a testament to the success of his screenplay.  The cross-stitching of fact and faction, history and myth is seamless – and makes the heart of the story all the more real.

Like the greatest of films, everyone will have their favorite scenes.  I was enraptured by the early dream sequence where Lincoln seeks the counsel of his wife, and held spellbound by the lightest of montaging in the “final vote” sequence that ends with church bells ringing and Lincoln running to open the window in his study with his son, Tad, at his side to hear the great news.

But for all its reverent grandeur and stylistic restraint, acting bravado and intimate detailing of the political process, what the film ultimately shows is that there is no perfect leader…no perfect union…but we are at our best when we strive for the greater good and aspire to more.  It does what all great art hopes to do – enlighten and entertain.  You can draw parallels to the resent passing of the Affordable Care Act or current debates over immigration and same-sex marriage…if you want…as the greatest of films are always reflective of the times in which they are made…or you can view it simply as one of the greatest cinematic renderings of history Hollywood has ever wrought.

Lincoln, indeed, belongs now to the ages.

Written by David H. Schleicher

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15 comments on “A Director, an Actor and an Icon Clothed in Immense Power in Lincoln

  1. Shall we do this? Top Five Spielbergs:

    Lincoln
    Schindler’s List
    Close Encounters of the Third Kind
    Raiders of the Lost Ark
    Saving Private Ryan

  2. I can already see this top the Annual Davies Awards 🙂

    Keen and insightful observations in just one viewing.

    I ain’t a diehard Spielberg fan but love his craft nonetheless. I liked Tintin because I grew up on a steady dose of Tintin comics (nostalgia for me) and Spielberg did a great job (at least technically) in bringing it to life. His last Indian Jones, however, I agree was lame and he’s hell bent on not letting go of the franchisee (for commercial reasons, I suppose); get ready for IJ-5.

    My Top 5 (minus Lincoln which I’m yet to see)
    1) Schindler’s List
    2) Saving Private Ryan
    3) Jurassic Park
    4) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
    5) Catch Me If You Can

    Honorable Mentions: Jaws, Munich & E.T.

    • About The Davies, we shall see my friend. Spielberg has always been hit or miss with his prolific and often commercial driven output…but when he gets personal and ups his game, he’s one of the best still.

  3. Sam Juliano says:

    Yes indeed David! LINCOLN the Film does now belong to the ages. I am anticipating a plethora of awards, Oscar nominations and prominent placements on ten-best lists in the coming weeks. Certainly it’s on my 2012 shortlist, and is a strong contender for the top position. As usual my southwest Jersey friend, your passion always brings out your best, and this is quite a banner appraisal of a film I have now watched three times, with each viewing bringing new revelations and pleasures. Yes this is just about as “restrained” a film as Spielberg has ever directed, and he was wise to allow Kushner and Day-Lewis to carry the film forth, even with the impressive supporting turns and the yeoman contributions of Janusz Kaminski and John Williams. LINCOLN is really about politics, and the great leader’s preparation for the final dramatic vote in the congressional chambers yields some of the film’s most engaging sequences. One could certainly argue that the opening when the two soldiers recite teh Gettysburg address is hokey and historically accurate, but any attempt to argue against teh tasteful way Spielberg brings closure in the assassination scene from another theatre with the child’s grief is grasping for straws. Same too with the surrender of Lee, done with exceeding delicacy. Day-Lewis, as you immediately homage in that great title to your essay is indeed an acting icon, and as so many have noted he BECAME Lincoln in this extraordinary, spectacular performance. Bereft of attention getting oratories, LINCOLN’s amazing modulation works to allow for slow acceleration, and some remarkable emotional resonance throughout and at the end. Sally Fields, Tommy Lee Jones, David Straitharn are all magnificent.

    1.Empire of the Sun
    2.Schindler’s List
    3. A.I. Artificial Intelligence
    4. Lincoln
    5. E.T. the Extra Terrestrial

    LINCOLN may well climb up this shortlist in due time, as I feel it’s too early to weigh it in the general picture. In any case you have really upped the ante with this glowing presentation David!

  4. Maurizio Roca says:

    I don’t quite see Lincoln as a masterpiece but it’s certainly good. And if we are talking best films since 2007 then The Tree Of Life and The Master are worthier choices IMO.

    Top Five Spielberg’s:

    1. AI: Artificial Intelligence 10/10
    2. Munich 10/10
    3. Schindler’s List 9/10
    4. Lincoln 8/10
    5. Saving Private Ryan 7/10

    Funny enough after these 5 films you can take a match to the rest of Spielberg’s filmography and make a wonderful fire. I find the rest of his career as basically worthless.

    • Maurizio Roca says:

      I meant American films obv…

    • Wow – worthless? Oh c’mon – there’s some grand “entertainment” in the rest of his canon. Granted, he has made some real stinkers.

      I’m with you on The Tree of Life. I would say that, There Will Be Blood and Lincoln are maybe the best of the last five years (American films). I will have to reassess The Master to see where that falls – it certainly was one of the more “difficult” films of recent memory.

  5. I think Lincoln was a superb movie, which is a rare and begrudging admission for a Spielberg film, not unlike whenever Tarantino pleases me. But unlike Tarantino, Spielberg comes across a great movie only once or twice per decade because he finds the right moment, or the right script, and doesn’t create the moment or script on his own. He’s a marvelous director for the consumer crowds with low IQs and even lower expectations, but he isn’t an auteur, and his creative process has always been a very passive and meaningless experience of fun.

    So I was genuinely surprised that this movie was in the very least interesting, winning 90% on Daniel Day-Lewis’s acting, and 10% on Tony Kushner’s play. The history is barely a few pages from Goodwin’s massive tome, and it’s all kind of undermined by the fact the 13th amendment would have been passed shortly anyway.

    I think Lincoln goes one further for DDL than There Will Be Blood, because he’s breathing vivid and classical life into an iconic figure of American history with such inspired power that it’s hard to think anybody would even pretend they have a chance against him at the Globes or Oscars.

    Kushner’s play is a great reduction of key ideas, personalities, and events into a symbolic drama that shuffles off as quickly as it came, encapsulating a bit hagiography with a bit of the color-drained awe Spielberg and Kaminsky are great at.

    What it is, it’s good at, and that’s all that really matters.

    My Spielberg choices:

    1. Schindler
    2. Private Ryan
    3. Indy 3
    4. Lincoln
    5. Jaws

    • Excellent assessment – though (as much as I want to be too sometimes) I think it’s far too fashionable to be so hard on Spielberg – but yeah, I don’t want to argue that point because to a very good extent I agree with you on him (and on Tarantino). And bottom line – I think at a high level we agree very much on the quality of this film.

      Indy 3 at #3, huh? It’s very interesting to see everyone’s top fives here.

  6. CMrok93 says:

    Nice review David. The performances are what really make this film work and I will not be a single-bit surprised if Jones, Fields, and Daniel Day get nominations for their amazing work here in their own roles.

  7. […] taking a cue from Spielberg’s Lincoln, does a commendable job showing the slow tension-building behind-the-scenes process of what it […]

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