If a studio is going to make a film about the myth that is Abraham Lincoln, populist filmmaker Steven Spielberg is the obvious choice to helm the vehicle.
It worried me that this demonstrated that the people involved wanted to be safe and not really explore Lincoln as he truly was. My fears were unfounded. Lincoln does more to simultaneously build up and tear down the myth of the president than any of the numerous biopics before it.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is not the Henry Fonda figure of John Ford’s films, with a booming authoritative voice and knowledge from on high. He is a man who looks almost tired and broken after four years of bloody conflict. In order to pass the 13th amendment, which is the film’s central focus (it takes place from January 1865 to Lincoln’s assassination in April), Lincoln becomes involved in bribery and even, as he himself admits, an impeachable offense. He is constantly questioned by his cabinet about his actions, and many members of Congress criticize his then unprecedented seizure of war powers. Even his stories, which have become famous in their own right, become the topic of scorn from those who listen to them. He’s not even sure if what he is doing is the right thing to do.
And that’s how the film also manages to preserve the myth of Lincoln. He’s a man first and foremost, but still somehow never cracked despite enormous pressure. It is in Lincoln’s humanity that makes him the legend he is. And Spielberg’s normally kitsch sentimental approach works for the material.
Lewis also took an enormous risk in his portrayal of Lincoln. Yes, by contemporary accounts, Lincoln really did speak with a very thin voice. But that is not how the public conscious chooses to remember it. I know of many who have criticized this portrayal as being “unrealistic.” He doesn’t sound like the man who could deliver a speech that would be recited by schoolchildren for centuries to come. But it is perfect for this film because it emphasizes Lincoln’s uncertainty about his position and deeds. He reduces his thoughts to folksy wisdom. They seem profound, but Lewis’ delivery does not make them appear so. He doesn’t recite them as though they will be repeated throughout history (although Spielberg’s direction makes that evident). He is simply trying to explain himself in the only way he can to people who have proven themselves to be very intimidating.
Just observe how the other people in the film conduct themselves. Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens is a man whom other Congressmen are afraid to even meet (one such confrontation leads to one of the best speeches in the film). Even Mary Todd Lincoln can barely keep it together, and sometimes appears as another obstacle for Lincoln. Sally Field doesn’t play Mary as crazed, but she does appear to not realize the gravity of her husband’s situation.
This really is an actor’s film; each of the supporting cast has great moments where Spielberg allows them to develop. Lesser filmmakers would have only focused on Daniel Day Lewis and forgot about everyone else. Spielberg is not a lesser filmmaker. He stages most of the film like a play, focusing on the people involved with very little effects. There are few battle scenes, and the camera usually focuses on the faces of the people talking rather than making them a small point in a crowd. Lincoln’s era, in terms of American history, was a time with no small men. This actually makes playing them a challenge – why should the people care about those who would presume they are gods. Luckily, all of the actors are allowed to find the humanity in the legends.
The film should be noted for what it excludes. As I said, there are almost no battle sequences (and the few brief moments that are shown are relatively bloodless – there are no Brady inspired scenes of carnage). Lincoln’s assassination is not shown. The Gettysburg Address is recited by other characters to Lincoln’s chagrin; in fact, Lincoln only gives one short public speech in the film. Again, this is all besides the point of the film. Any one of those scenes would have propelled Lincoln back to the “legend” status that Spielberg was so eager to avoid. He was smart to exclude them.
I saw this film in the middle of Atlanta – the birth place of Gone with the Wind and one of the cities General Sherman burned near the end of the war. After the film ended, there was applause. Maybe that’s a sign that the Reconstruction is finally over. Or maybe it demonstrates that Spielberg and Day Lewis have managed to use their considerable talents to craft something special.