Even Better Than We Expected: “Lincoln”

Going in, I was fairly skeptical about “Lincoln.” Naturally, the desire to see Daniel Day-Lewis in one of his patented live-as-the-character method roles excited me, but the potential for a movie about one of our greatest presidents to be little more than a waxworks show was undeniable, and the presence of Steven Spielberg at the helm left me even more ambivalent. Don’t get me wrong: Spielberg has made several of the greatest films of the modern era, and his ability to craft equally compelling films aimed at both pure escapism and hard-hitting drama is unparalleled. But it’s also true that for every home run he delivers, he usually follows with, if not a strike-out, no better than a single. I would have charitably described myself as cautiously optimistic.

Consider my skepticism unwarranted. “Lincoln” is not only one of the best films of the year, but a film that can stand proudly among Spielberg’s own considerable past work. It provides a compelling, near-masterful portrait of a fascinating individual, an entertaining and informative history lesson, a suspenseful, emotionally rewarding semi-legal drama and a living, breathing glimpse of the role of government that has important political implications today. “Lincoln” succeeds intellectually, emotionally and often even viscerally, providing the complete package. At its core lies perhaps the single best performance of the year and beyond that, maybe the best portrayal of a U.S. President in the history of film.

“Lincoln” is being marketed as a biopic, but this is only partially true. The entirety of the action takes place over a few months at the beginning of 1865, mostly in January, and the film centers specifically on Lincoln’s fight to pass the 13th amendment in Congress. Near the end of the war, Lincoln sees an opportunity to use the absence of the Southern states from Congress to end slavery. However, the bill soon meets with fierce opposition from Democrats, as well as more conservative Republicans. In turn, Lincoln has to pull out of his top hat a bevy of tricks, many of which were then and would be considered questionable today. He needs 20 Democrats to support the bill, no Republican abstentions or conflicting votes and he needs to hold off the very real possibility that the Confederates want a peace treaty, under which slavery would likely be sanctioned. Lincoln knows that the end of the war means that his bill will not pass, not only because of the representatives from Southern states, but also because many Northern proponents of the bill only support it as a war measure. With seemingly insurmountable odds, he brings his considerable political know-how to the table and attempts to change history.

The decision to confine the action to such a short period is one of the film’s greatest masterstrokes. Most biopics fail because they find themselves confused with how to solve the unwieldy task of condensing an entire lifetime into two or so hours. This often leads to the film seeming stodgy, as though it is only able to brush with broad strokes a select smattering of sequences in a person’s life rather than painting with a sharp brush a living, breathing portrait. This technique often fails to actually explore the central figure, often feeling rushed, messy and poorly constructed. While confining the action to few months would seem to paint an even less full picture of our 16th President, it is precisely the reason why the film succeeds as well as it does. Not only does it increase tension and suspense and provide a better narrative flow, but allowing us to see the man tackle one specific issue from beginning to completion gives a truer picture of how he sees the world, how he interacts with others and what he is willing to do and not do in order to accomplish his goals. Instead of devoting a few scenes to different conflicts Lincoln faces throughout his life, we become immersed in his thoughts and actions and come to see why they are important to not only the country but to himself. We understand what makes him tick. By the end of the film, we do not only see a figure or an idol, but a man. A great man, but a man nonetheless.

In the annals of Spielberg’s work, this film is one of the truest examples of his gift for both entertainment and hard-hitting drama. Whereas most of his films fit neatly into one category, “Lincoln” walks a delicate tightrope between them, and in doing so it manages to be not only immediately compelling, but to raise difficult questions about the role of government in society. The portrait of Lincoln in the film is of a man who is willing to exert great power in his office to accomplish what he sees as right. Many of the tactics resorted to by Lincoln and his Radical Republican allies would be considered questionable by today’s standards, and, even for the time, many (both defenders of slavery and some who saw it as abhorrent) believed that Lincoln had over-asserted the role of the federal government. While times have no doubt changed, the politics presented in Lincoln bear some striking resemblances to today, and they raise important and difficult questions. With state’s rights arguments all the rage again today, it’s important to consider how these arguments have historically been used to maintain the status quo. The film refrains from taking an explicit political stance on this except in relation to the specific cause of ending slavery, but these implications are always present in the film and they add a layer of provocative nuance and depth to the proceedings that raise the film above being just a supremely compelling character study.

First and foremost though, this is a character study, and at the center of our connection to the titular character lies in a masterful portrayal from perhaps the finest actor working today, Daniel Day-Lewis. While the script sets the ground for a compelling portrait, it’s really Day-Lewis who knocks it out of the park and provides us with a man, simultaneously down-to-earth yet forward-thinking, humble yet grand, compassionate yet firm, who is endlessly fascinating. The film benefits from a fine ensemble cast, at least one of whom (Tommy Lee Jones as the fiery Thaddeus Stevens, one of the de facto leaders of the Radical Republicans) will likely be nominated for an Oscar, but when Day-Lewis is on the screen, our eyes attract to him like moths to a lantern. He’s magnetic, and through his body language, facial expressions, cadence, tone of voice and general screen presence, we understand exactly why Lincoln is considered the greatest President of all time, someone who combines the best aspects of an idealist and a pragmatist, a man who thinks big but knows how to approach problems as a realist. In Day-Lewis, we understand exactly why Lincoln makes every decision he does. He’s extraordinarily convincing. And above all, isn’t this exactly what being a President is about?

“Lincoln” doesn’t have the blunt impact of some of Spielberg’s most anguished work, such as “Schindler’s List” or “Munich,” but it doesn’t need to nor want to. This is a more uplifting film than many of the director’s more serious work, and in this light, it’s a rousing success. There are a few vestiges of staginess here and there, mostly early on when there are a few too many scenes in which characters say things that seem like they were directed a little too obviously at the audience rather than at anyone else in the film. By and large, however, this is old-fashioned movie-making at its finest and a reminder that Spielberg, when he brings his A-game, is among the finest directors working today. It’s as good as one could hope for.