My favorite shot in the film.

Lincoln is pretty much Spielberg at his most Spielberg. Everything good and bad implied by that statement is true in his latest film. It’s sentimental, but beautiful. It’s dry, but intelligent. It’s impeccably cast and acted. It’s pandering and simplistic. It’s topical and complex. I make it sound more at odds with itself than it is, which you should understand is part of why Spielberg is one of the greatest mainstream filmmakers alive.

Lincoln may be an eminently safe movie, but it’s got something to say if you’re willing to look closely. Most of what it has to say is stuff that the average person isn’t too aware of or interested in. And it’s all stuff that pertains far more to Americans than anyone else. Still, its narrative is built over a foundation of political procedure that resembles current trends while also critiquing them and providing a great example of how they were transcended to do a great good.

Daniel Day-Lewis, motherfuckers.

Lincoln is played by the greatest actor alive, Daniel Day-Lewis. He brings to the role the same raw physicality, commitment, and conviction that have made him the greatest actor alive. A great deal of the reason to watch this movie is to see him in such a role. Let alone see him work with Steven Spielberg. I’m here to tell you that this is where Lincoln truly delivers. For all that the film is often a game of “hey that guy!” dressed up in a self-serious costumed stage play, Day-Lewis centers everything in precisely the same way the character centers the narrative, that the man centered the issues of his times.

Not exactly a snapshot of his career, but close, Lincoln is all about the process undergone to get the 13th Amendment (abolition of slavery in the United States) to pass a vote in the House of Representatives. Lincoln’s reasoning unfurls throughout the film, but the crux of the problem is securing 20 Democrat votes needed to get the amendment through. In the 1860’s, the Republicans were mostly for abolition with the Democrats mostly against. More than simply being a moral concern, the issue was shaded by economics issues (what happens to the four million freed slaves after abolition passes?) as well as the Civil War. It was felt by some that the South would continue fighting to keep their slave-based economy alive while Lincoln’s stance was that ending slavery would help end the war by removing one of the reasons the South was fighting. Though shaky in logical terms, the position seems effective among people who otherwise wouldn’t support the end of slavery on simple moral grounds.

Tired and haggard throughout the film, sometimes the makeup makes him look downright undead.

The film’s primary focus in all this is obviously Lincoln himself. There’s a lot of old, fat white men in stupid wigs and beards fighting all through the movie. Lincoln himself is a stooped, tired old man who tells funny stories while everyone else around him goes crazy. In one or two scenes, he expresses an ironclad will and it is in these scenes that we see something truly presidential emerge in both Day-Lewis and his performance. It’s intoxicating, a little, seeing the gloves come off this guy. I mean, for a culture so in love with its own historical figures (as if Americans weren’t the last guys to the table on ending slavery, but the first and most emphatic) that it is a joke to people from other countries, it’s a character and performance like this that manages to convey an inspiring greatness. It actually wasn’t until toward the end of the film that I understood why Lincoln commands so much respect.

Within the confines of this dramatization, Lincoln is a popular figure for his affability and common touch, but also respected for his will. You hear about it, from his own mouth even, in parts where his assumption of war powers is described. For this, the Democrats compare him to Caesar but it’s not his power-mongering they should fear. The guy comes across as politically canny. When his somewhat underhanded attempt to leverage some Democrat votes stalls out, he goes himself to speak to some holdouts and try to convince them to do the right thing.

That’s the stuff the movie does remarkably well. You get invested in Lincoln, grow to like him, and finally you see that he is formidable and his enemies are right to fear him.

Only Tommy Lee-Jones matches Day-Lewis in the conviction of his performance.

It’s not as if Lincoln pulled all this off alone, of course. There are a number of secondary figures played by luminaries like Hal Holbrook, David Strathairn, and Jackie Erle Haley. Most of the tremendous actors in this film try to do quite a bit with limited screen time. But really, a list of all the actors I like that pop up in the movie would be a lot of fun if not exactly constructive. They are mostly cameos, so the really meaty stuff is left to guys like Stathairn and Holbrook, and Lee-Jones. Even Gail from Breaking Bad gets more to do than Joseph Gordon Levitt, the King of 2012. Still nice to see him and the likes of Lukas Haas, John Hawkes, Walton Goggins, and Dane DeHaan (seriously, cast this kid in Star Wars VII) pop up.

The film’s somewhat cloying sentimentality is part of what keeps it from being great except in the self-satisfied prestige picture sense. I can best exemplify this problem in the character of Mrs. Keckley (Gloria Reuben). Keckley is Mary Todd Lincoln’s (Sally Field) inexplicable freed slave bestie. I’m sure she’s an historical figure, I’m sure there’s some reason she’s in the movie beyond being the emotional core of the “black side” of this story, but you never see it. In one manipulative scene after another, Keckley is supposed to be the focal point for our understanding that black people are people too. It’s just too weak, too safe, and too shallow to be effective. The two men at the beginning, a couple of black soldiers who Lincoln speaks with (one a bit star struck and eager to please, the other highly educated and critical), threatened to pre-emptively undo this problem but it is never capitalized. Thaddeus Stevens’s (Tommy Lee-Jones) wife (?) is a black woman who is more effective than Keckley as a character in 1/100th the screen time.

A lot of the photography is cloistered and intimate, but when it goes outside there’s a spare beauty.

A lot of this film is old, self-important white people talking. There’s something jarring and comedic about engaging this film, which doesn’t go too far in criticizing the very idea of these people debating the fate of four million enslaved humans. Mostly, though, it’s dry and procedural and full of 19th Century speak, sprinkled here and there with some fun and one or two of Lincoln’s stories. That said, the political process that supplies most of the tension and interplay of the film is twisty, complex, and intelligently expressed. It takes a bit of brain power to follow this stuff, though I’d say it isn’t in itself much more complex than the politics of shows like Game of Thrones so most people should follow it fine. I’d bet that a better-than-I-have knowledge of American history would help greatly not only with following the film but also pinpointing its accuracy (you’ll notice I stay away from that topic in this review).

The most important chunk of the intelligent procedure is that we understand what a wily and clever political mind Lincoln had. This is the part the film conveys best, showing us how he outmaneuvers his competition and used political expedience and some underhanded techniques to pull the country toward the morally right thing. That is the measure of a great man, let alone a great president, and Lincoln is painstakingly aware of himself and his reasoning. Though Spielberg panders a lot to to the mythology around the man, the man is always front-most in his movie and that’s a good thing.

The subplot with Mary and the family issues that obnoxiously meld with the political ones did nothing for me.

Of course, Spielberg can’t avoid using hoary old tropes to get across the humanity of Lincoln. He’s a loving father but is troubled by his wife who holds him responsible for the soldiering ambitions of their oldest son, Rob (Gordon-Levitt). In one or two scenes, Field gets to act her damn heart out against both Day-Lewis and Lee-Jones and it’s just fine. But the way this part of the movie injects drama feels like a distraction and an unwelcome one. Do we really need another story where a man is stuck between his overprotective wife and his suicidally naive son? Even Lincoln himself remarks on the no doubt millions of similar conversations raging all across the country during the war. Though it affords some nice performances, and though it might both reflect history and comment on it, I found myself thinking that if they had to go there, they could have gone there with a bit more authenticity and a bit less broad drama.

Besides, it’s hard to watch Lincoln hanging out with his son while the House decides the fate of his amendment. It seems so false, even if it really happened. It’s dignity by way of trying really hard to convey dignity.

All that said, the scene where the tension between he and his wife finally erupts is a good one. As is one where Rob sees what happens to the amputated limbs of wounded Union soldiers and then tearfully reaffirms his sense of moral obligation (with a cringe-inducing gooey center of self-involvement). Then there’s the end, where (spoilers!), Tad Lincoln reacts to the news of his father’s death with one of the most gut wrenching spots of kid-acting-trauma I’ve ever seen.

For all that it’s about the fate of black people in America, there’s precious little of them in the movie. This may be historically valid but it’s an uncomfortable thing all the same.

When I said that Lincoln was topical, I meant in the sense that it shows a country divided along ideological lines. Even within the Union itself, cooperation is hard won. This reflects the current political landscape of the US. Democrats and Republicans are blood enemies right now, with the former being on the side of liberality and thus the side of history with the latter co-opted by backwards radicalisms and the traditionalist, out of touch ideological meanderings of the old and privileged. Lincoln shows how a country divided could be sewn back together by the will of a single man, which is maybe what a lot of Americans hope to see happen now.

If nothing else, it shows what great good can be accomplished (even if it’s a bit late) if people can be convinced to vote with their consciences rather than the whims of a political party. It’s a gentle reminder to Americans of what democracy can be if it’s allowed to (or made to) function.

Lighting! Serious business.

Advertisements