There’s something to be said for a movie that insists on giving two and a half hours of screen time to highly intelligent men speaking in barbed, cogent, eloquent language. Whether this kind of language can rightly be called cinematic greatness or not, you have to admit that there’s a dearth of talented oratory in the United States, whether from our movies or our politicians. In many ways, this kind of speech is the overarching mark of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which is ostensibly an account of the legendary president’s hard-fought battle to end the Civil War by passing the 13th Amendment, a move which many well-spoken, intelligent men around him advised would be impossible to pull off.
The first time we encounter Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) hard at work being president, he’s holed up with his trusted Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), in an 1860s version of the Oval Office. The two trade eloquent dialogue crafted by screenwriter (and playwright) Tony Kushner, who adeptly works in plenty of excuses for Seward to give Lincoln a recount of recent history, including the major events of the Civil War and the challenges it presented. Presumably, this is all for the benefit of the audience, perhaps not as up on its Civil War history as Lincoln would have been in 1865, but Kushner is a master at cloaking expository dialogue in necessary speech.
Lincoln’s great challenge and torture in this film is to find a way to pass the slavery-ending 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives, a legislative body at war with itself, caught between anti-Abolitionist Peace Democrats (the era’s “Copperheads”) on one side, and pro-Abolitionist Radical Republicans (led by Tommy Lee Jones’s irascible Thaddeus Stevens) on the other. If it passes, Lincoln reasons, the War will end: the South will have no motivation to fight once their beloved slavery has been taken. Seward, an angel on Lincoln’s shoulder, pragmatically advises that compromise with Democrats is impossible. The president begs to differ.
The main thrust of the film’s plot, then, is Lincoln’s scheme to secure the 20 opposition votes he’ll need to pass the Amendment. To that end, he authorizes Seward to employ a crew of underhanded scalawags, played by John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and a particularly good James Spader, to beg, borrow or steal the needed votes. The trio are undoubtedly meant to be the 1860s version of political lobbyists, and their campaign of bribery and intimidation is the only consistently light thread in the movie.
But despite this smattering of scenes featuring three great character actors doing dirty deeds on behalf of our most hallowed president, Lincoln offers surprisingly little in the way of crowd-pleasing. Though he always moves things with an assured, professional pace, Spielberg’s customary sweeping camera movements and judicious editing feels like a bit much in a movie that’s mostly about old politicians arguing about their beliefs. Spielberg easily sells these proceedings as something more than a dry account of the un-gridlocking of a Congress, but he can’t ultimately keep Lincoln from seeming like what it is: the work of a couple of conservative artists (Spielberg and Kushner) making an exceedingly mature political-historical film.
Spielberg may be the only director alive with a reputation great enough to wrangle a force like Daniel Day-Lewis for such a perfunctory movie. Throughout Lincoln,it often seems like it was the strength of Spielberg’s legend, rather than that of the film’s script, that convinced the great actor to surrender his skill to what amounts to a soulful imitation of a mythic figure within a movie that has nothing more groundbreaking to declare than “compromise is necessary”. Day-Lewis conveys the anguish of a man caught between slavery, the Confederacy, the House of Representatives, and a nutso wife (Sally Field as the needy yet bulldoggish Mary Todd Lincoln) as well as you’d expect from an actor of his unimaginable talent. But in a film as Spielberg-simple as Lincoln, that seems like little more than the actor’s valiant effort to save face.
There are historical film that dig in, gasp for air, and feel for the time they’re conjuring — The Virgin Spring, Fitzcarraldo, Andrei Rublev, Come and See, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, (the Day-Lewis starring) There Will Be Blood, Valhalla Rising — films with inevitable flaws that reach higher than they sometimes seem confident in reaching. These movies make older times breathe, and prove that film can bring us close to history. Lincoln isn’t in their ranks; it belongs, like most of Spielberg’s historical stuff (excepting, maybe, Saving Private Ryan) to that genre of dutiful films that aim to recreate history by a lot of historical figures talking. Spielberg has an uncanny ability to infuse every dialogue scene he shoots with a steady, immediate energy, but he’s much more concerned that things remain clear and palatable than he is with creating anything new, exciting, or challenging.
Apparently, the gilding of Lincoln’s legacy reached its peak in the first quarter of the of the 20th century, then gradually slid downward as we moved toward the millennium. A rethinking of Lincoln’s motives and the country he shaped, into which Freedmen were released without a safety net after the end of slavery, got into full swing during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Lincoln’s image as the Great Emancipator was forced down a few notches by a rereading of history that considered him, at least partially, a political opportunist and no great defender of blacks. Today the historical consensus on his accomplishments is conflicted; so much so that a little kid who learned about him in grade school in the 90s can remember plenty of negative historical viewpoints.
It’s too much to say that Spielberg’s goal is a simple re-elevation of the 16th president’s reputation; his Lincoln makes a sincere attempt to show a flawed and troubled leader who was willing to compromise his immediate principles for what he could see was the greater good. Spielberg clearly wanted to paint a realistic picture of the last months of Lincoln’s presidency and life. But he doesn’t have the spontaneity or willingness to take risks that it takes to make a great historical movie. He’s not crazy enough to make history feel raw; Lincoln is through and through a movie that looks back fondly on the past from the present. Spielberg can only lay out events tastefully, scene by scene, while the great actors he’s cast trade Kushner’s expert dialogue. And when the ugliness of war and politics and leadership is your subject, being tasteful is a little insulting.