Imagine, if you can ( and as you did) a cinematic take on arguably the most iconic American president yet to reign, one directed by Steven Spielberg. I imagine that the fictional film that you see projected on your minds screen is big, blunt, brutal, beautiful and brilliant. We see young Abraham Lincoln, we see his shaping at the hands of a tough father, we see his rise out of poverty and into power, his struggle with the team of rivals (from which the book the actual film is based took its title) and then, an hour or so in we see the start of the civil war, of those costly, caustic battles, we see victory and then tragically we see – in operatic slow motion? – the shooting of that great man and the mourning of the nation that loved him so. that is what you see, no? Strangely then that isn’t the film that you will see when you venture into your literal cinema for Lincoln.
What Spielberg has done here is shoot the film near free from all those Spielbergian touches that he is now famous for: he tells only a small section of the big man’s story, the intricate and intimate details of the month in which Lincoln’s political wile was most put to the test, the high stakes here the passing of a constitutional amendment through the deeply divided house. There is no personal history, no perspective flashbacks, no great battle scenes, few inspiring speeches and not even a snippet of the shooting. See, not only would the film that you imagined be the one expected by all, it would also have been the easy one to make and Spielberg in his recent career has often opted to take the harder path instead. Here that means making a movie about the man as a politician but trying to move us in the same way a saccharine melodrama might, to make boardrooms as majestic as battlefields and boy does he succeed.
Jefferson Davis – Lincoln’s equal in power and position, being as he was the President of the Confederacy – is barely given a personal mention here; he is a name but not a face and never a human being like those that we see though he is the stories antagonist in terms of traditional structure. Perhaps in the days of Kings that is how wars were fought, one man against another, but in this day and age (a term that includes the 1850’s in this case) conflict is more about shoring up your own side, creating a power base and maintaining a currency than it is destroying your oppositions and this is where Lincoln’s leadership was so important. Abraham’s ability to awe with his words seems to have stemmed primarily from his ability to read social situations and choose the best fitted ones, he had a great deal of empathy and this not only drove him towards abolition but gave him the power of reading and persuading people that passing that law required. These were his skills and this was his battle.
You wouldn’t think then, wouldn’t imagine given the pedantic premise, but this is actually Spielberg’s most charismatic and comedic film in years. More surprising still this is thanks mostly to the scenes set in the statehouse, those that are usually driest of all and those that should have suffered from a drought of the star, given that the president is not allowed to walk within those walls. The starpower put into those pews more than makes up for the missing Day-lewis though, Tommy Lee Jones and Lee Pace strut the stand and spit venomous vitriol at one another with charisma and language a colour my eyes have never before seen. This kind of comedic wit and whip tight shooting are not new to Steven’s style of course, but coming after the spectacular but stiltedly serious War Horse they were a pleasant surprise to discover again.
I have to admit though that humour wasn’t exactly what I wanted this film to provide, no matter how well it provisioned it. There were numerous laughs, chortles and deep chuckles from the packed audience in my cinema but not one audible sob or sputter of tears, despite a strong potential in the material for such sorrow causing. Sally Field, as a ferocious but too well founded Mary Todd, attempts to mine some of this but she stands almost alone in doing so – maybe with Levitt – against a horde of hugely talented character actors who are taking a different approach altogether. I did, subjectively, miss the sweep of sensationalism but have to respect the arguably more audacious approach that the team have taken here; when they are all this talented its hard to argue against them.
Day-Lewis doesn’t need my praise, doesn’t need me to say that he gives a good performance; in fact I would think that phrase would do his work a disservice were i to utter it. He embodies the president like none of the posters or text book phrases familiar to us ever could. His take on old honest Abe splits the middle of those two aforementioned tones, uniting them as he did so many other deep divisions. Here we see a strangely human take on the man: one too fascinated with talking, one fond of a joke as way of easing the rampant suffering of his surrounds, one tragically torn down and built up both by the people he serves and serves with, one more flawed than the imagined ideal but somehow all the more impressive for it. There are sure similarities between him and Obama, but the biggest favor the film does him the current CiC is showing the toll and test of the job even back then, when he was free to act in some privacy, to retain some sense of humanity and normality; talking blanket bound to telegraph operators and simple civilians smuggled in off the street, free from security, ironically.
The score by Spielberg’s eternal sidekick John Williams is indicative of the film as a whole; his traditionally soaring strings and wrought iron orchestration replaced by simple, soft piano melodies. It is all but silent, stirring us only in the rare moments between speeches, expressing what even these most eloquent men – aided as they are by the more than able play write Tony Kushner and his script that retains the depth of real politics while also conveying the spirit of each scene to those left unawares – cannot convey through words alone. It’s not a score that you can sit and listen to, energized and invigorated towards action, but one best heard from a rocking chair, reflecting and that too services this story best.
Despite my reservations the only thing that I would have had the film change – bar maybe the ending, the optimist in me wishing to deny some self-evident truths – it would have been the title. To me Lincoln suggests to much and sounds far too portentous for the picture that this became. Freedom is too trite and Equal wouldn’t have worked either as it suggests something saccharine which this film is far from. Were he to name it I feel that Lincoln himself would have gone a little smaller – his ego requiring him tell the story but not be its namesake – perhaps Amendment ,The Thirteenth or, if he had too Abe. And although it may not be what we expected or wanted this is surely the biopic that Lincoln himself would have liked best, the story as he would have told it candlelit or by a great burning fire to the critics, comrades and commonfolk in the surrounds. He would have skipped the speeches and the slaughter, kept all the self-deprecating scenes and anything with a punchline and gotten to the point at about the same pace, so why should Steven have done anything different?
Postscript: There is one example of a time where that title works perfectly, see it below.