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