By: Bill Kohlhaase Published online: Monday, November 19, 2012 Appeared in: Pasateimpo
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Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a
surprisingly small film, considering its
subject. With the Civil War as background,
it focuses on the passage of the 13th Amendment
to the Constitution and what it took, politically, to
achieve it. The president deals with the false choice
of ending the war and ending slavery, hearty criticism
from his political enemies on both sides, and
dysfunction in his own family. Daniel Day-Lewis
looks and sounds the part of the 16th president,
though sometimes his words and the cadences at
which they come feel self-conscious. Sally Fields as
Mary Todd Lincoln and Tommy Lee Jones as radical
abolitionist Thaddeus Jones stand out from an other-
wise unremarkable ensemble cast. Interesting, but not
epic. Rated PG-13. 149 minutes.
You’d think a meeting of two of America’s biggest
names — Spielberg and Lincoln — would result
in something epic and blockbusting. But Steven
Spielberg’s Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the
16th president, is a surprisingly small film, focused
on ideas as much as action. It’s based on Doris Kearns
Goodwin’s 2005 biography Team of Rivals, a book
that addresses Lincoln’s first election and years as
president. Spielberg takes only a slice of Goodwin’s
book, focusing on the last months of Lincoln’s life
and the passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery. With the Civil War as background, it’s a
political thriller without the thrills. There are only a
few sweeping scenes of the war, and those concentrate
on its horrors. One scene, the distant burning of the
port of Wilmington, North Carolina, recalls the
burning of Atlanta in Gone With the Wind. What drives
Spielberg’s story isn’t the war but the politics and
passions behind it. The film’s most relevant message,
in light of current events, is transparently suggested:
political rancor and arm-twisting, both morally sound
and not, are as old as the union itself.
Day-Lewis looks the part of the president, both in
size and posture. You can see him slouching under
the load of the dissolved country, the deaths incurred
in a war he can’t end, and the personal troubles that
confront him at home. He moves through a dim
world that is shaded by the smoke of pipes and cigars,
fireplaces and war. Several of the scenes, frequently
framed in dark rooms in front of large, bright windows, offer silhouettes that are right out of a Mathew
Brady portrait. To screenwriter Tony Kushner’s credit,
this Lincoln is not the saintly man of historical legend.
He slaps his adult son, argues vehemently with his
wife (played by Sally Fields), and demands his
political colleagues recognize his authority as he
pounds and points fingers.
Day-Lewis’ voicing of the president is authentic to
a fault. Lincoln was more silver-tongued than silver-throated. His voice was “thin” and “high-pitched,”
according to Horace White, who reported on Lincoln’s
antislavery speech at the Illinois State Fair in 1854.
Lincoln’s law partner and biographer William
Herndon described Lincoln’s voice as “squeaking” and
“piping.” But Hollywood has often made it rich, even
thunderous. D.W. Griffith’s 1930 epic Abraham Lincoln
— Griffith’s first full-sound production — features
Walter Huston voicing a resounding, full-throated
Lincoln. In the 1982 television miniseries The Blue
and the Gray, Gregory Peck’s Lincoln speaks with
resonance and an air of sophistication. (The most
melodious Lincoln is Benjamin Walker’s in the recent
Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.) Hal Holbrook’s
performance as the president in the 1974 television
documentary Sandburg’s Lincoln is the exception.
Holbrook, who plays the conciliatory Republican
Francis Preston Blair in Spielberg’s Lincoln, received
hate mail when he made the president sound like
“a hick.” In his own defense, Holbrook, something
of a Lincoln scholar, was quoted as saying that biographers use five words “over and over again to describe
Lincoln’s voice — flat, nasal, high, shrill, and unpleasant.” Day-Lewis, overcoming his English accent,
commands these qualities while going full hick. His
Lincoln is more Walter Brennan than Walter Huston.
But he falls into a certain predictable cadence that
makes his backwoods speech all of a sort. The effect
is something like Meryl Streep’s Polish accent in
Sophie’s Choice. It sometimes gets in the way.
What Lincoln is given to say also piles up on him.
When not being profound, he’s being folksy. In the
middle of heated negotiations, he starts a speciously
relevant story with a laugh, much to the dismay
of his cabinet. (The scene recalls one in Griffith’s
Abraham Lincoln in which Ulysses S. Grant, well into
a bottle, bemoans another story from the president.)
He decorates his speech with symbolism, not all of it
appropriate. Day-Lewis seems too conscious of the
weighty language, something that clashes with the
naturalness of his country twang.
Tommy Lee Jones, as the radical abolitionist
Thaddeus Stevens, transcends the character acting
around him whenever he appears. Wearing an absurd-
looking wig, he still manages to be the most sincere
character presented. Fields captures the complex and
confused character of Mary Todd Lincoln — hungry
for social acceptance, anxious to stand up for her
man even as she nags him in private. Again, her
country drawl, emphasized to the point of irritability,
occasionally separates her from her character. Joseph
Gordon-Levitt, as Robert Todd Lincoln, seems insincere when demanding that his parents allow him to
enlist, a home-of-the-brave plot complication that pits
privilege against country. A well-disguised Jared Harris
(Lane Pryce in Mad Men) is a too-sober Gen. Grant.
The film’s best scenes — other than when Confederate
delegates are greeted by black Union soldiers — take
place in Congress, where the shouts and name-calling
reflect contemporary divisions in their righteous
venom. Considering the kind of language bandied
about in today’s politics, it doesn’t seem shocking
to hear Lincoln called a dictator and worse by those
resisting abolition. But there is a reminder — as
Spielberg suggests — that such language came at
a time when men were in actual, not figurative,
chains. There’s also the seemingly quaint notion
that compromise in the face of outrage is possible.
Anti-abolition Democrats are made to change their
minds with the help of favors and, in one slapstick
Spielberg goes for laughs at just the wrong times.
In the final-vote scenes, the stuttering uncertainty and
repeated dramatic pauses of vote casters undercut the
mood and historical importance of the moment. When
Stevens’ motivation is revealed, it hardly comes as
a shock. The film’s only worthy surprise comes at its
end, with the audience expecting the conclusion that
every schoolchild knows. This break from the predict-
able final scene in an otherwise all too predictable film
is a bit of dramatic genius, keeping us from once more
witnessing that familiar American climax.