Let’s get this out of the way: Lincoln is pure, uncut, no-holds-barred Oscar bait. Simply including the names Abraham Lincoln, Steven Spielberg (War Horse) and Daniel Day-Lewis (Nine) on a single movie poster is enough to earn a Best Picture nomination and then some.
So, yes, there’s plenty of high-minded rhetoric about race and America delivered by an impassioned Day-Lewis, set to swelling John Williams (War Horse) strings, and no shortage of moments in which Spielberg frames his subject to remind you of his gravitas — as if it isn’t already apparent (No one who has been enshrined in marble 30 feet tall needs any help in the grandeur department, thank you very much).
But it’s also a surprisingly intimate film that accomplishes the not-so-easy feat of making Lincoln seem, well, human. (The only other film to pull this off is John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln.) Day-Lewis captures the man’s rectitude and oratorical might, but he also finds the humanity beneath the iconography, painting a picture of the Great Emancipator as a warm but wounded man with a knack for storytelling and a soft, genial smile. Honest Abe is most definitely the kind of guy you would want to have a beer with.
Spielberg lets his scenes breathe, building his portrait as much through an accumulation of minor but telling details as capital-I Important moments. He includes plenty of full-throated speeches, but he also takes the time to show Lincoln building a fire between meetings and playing with his son. It’s a historical epic that doubles as an effective character study.
Those two halves don’t always mesh well, however. Lincoln is as much at war with itself as the nation it portrays, and the smaller, human moments are infinitely more interesting than the big, prestige picture elements.
It’s a dichotomy neatly captured in the film’s opening scene. Lincoln speaks with two black soldiers who recount the Battle of Jenkins’ Ferry. One begins to complain about the pay disparity between white and black soldiers, while the other smiles and apologizes for his friend. Lincoln responds amicably, doing his best to appear sympathetic while not promising anything he doesn’t have the political capital to deliver.
It’s a casual, understated scene, admirably penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe Tony Kushner (Munich), establishing three interesting characters (two of whom never appear again) in just a few moments, while introducing important thematic and historical issues at the same time.
And then it takes a turn. Two white soldiers show up and, in an effort to impress their commander in chief, begin reciting the “Gettysburg Address” to him. They can’t remember the final few lines, however, and depart unsatisfied with their performance. And then — here’s the kicker — one of the black soldiers, smiling up at Lincoln as if he’s greeting the second coming of Christ, recites those final few lines as Williams’ sweepingly sentimental score pushes the movie firmly into Hallmark Hall of Fame-levels of unadulterated sap. It’s the kind of easy, rah-rah emotional appeal you would expect from an episode of Schoolhouse Rock!, not one of the preeminent filmmakers of his generation.
That’s Lincoln in a nutshell: half nuanced character study, half hagiography. It’s at once a cynical deconstruction of the realities of politics and a flag-waving embrace of American moral authority.
But that’s nothing new for Spielberg, who has always simultaneously indulged in and questioned a thoroughly square, idealized 1950s view of America, and he mostly sells it — if there’s ever been an American figure deserving of deification, it’s Lincoln.
The extraordinarily gifted cast helps tremendously in this regard. Day-Lewis is every bit as good as expected, although Tommy Lee Jones (Hope Springs) might be even better as Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the Radical Republicans. Every role, minor and major, is filled by some accomplished thespian who manages to breathe life into his or her character, no matter how insignificant. The only exception is James Spader (The Office), whose theatrical, broadly comical performance sticks out like a sore thumb in Lincoln’s sea of method realism.
The film restricts its focus to the last few months of Lincoln’s presidency, centering on his efforts to balance peace negotiations with Richmond with his efforts to bludgeon the 13th Amendment through Congress. He’s tasked with uniting his own divided party behind passing the legislation, which would end slavery forever, while facing down a reactionary Democratic party firmly united in its opposition to anything he proposes.
It’s a situation with more than a few parallels to the current political climate, but Spielberg wisely doesn’t overstate them — these aren’t issues exclusive to any one period. They have haunted the republic since its inception and will continue to do so until its demise.
If there’s a crucial flaw to Lincoln, it’s that it lacks the capacity to surprise. That may be an unavoidable problem when tackling such a well-known story, but it’s a problem nonetheless. There are a few moments when the film bucks the weight of expectation — such as a late-in-the-game revelation about Stevens’ personal life and a startlingly hostile argument between Abe and Mary Todd (Sally Field, The Amazing Spider-Man) — but, on the whole, Lincoln values being properly dignified over doing anything unexpected.
Spielberg’s uncharacteristically flat visuals don’t help liven up the proceedings, either. If War Horse was an empty-headed crowd-pleaser redeemed by impressive style, Lincoln is a thoughtful movie filmed in the most undistinguished way possible.
As with every post-Munich Spielberg outing, Lincoln lacks the aesthetic vigor and emotional pull that made him one of the most successful moviemakers of all time. It’s tasteful and substantive but also bland, a far cry from the pathos and energy of his top-caliber work. But, in its best moments, it’s also a film that finds humanity and reality in much-mythologized history.