One hundred and fifty years since the Emancipation Proclamation was signed into existence, slavery has once again become a hot-button topic in American cinema.
Arguably two of the biggest cinematic releases on show at the moment are Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. The former is a stylized romantic quest/social injustice revenge flick set in the antebellum South, the latter an inherently worthy dramatization of the life of the eponymous Commander in Chief in the days commencing the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
Both of these films deal with that specter of the American psyche in very different, one could even say polarized ways – Django is all violence and pop culture and the N-word, a schlocky slice of exploitation; Lincoln is all serious social issues, character moments, and impassioned speechifying in the House of Congress.
Returning to Quentin Tarantino and his obsession with his hit-and-miss ratio, I think there’s an argument to be made that the last exceptional film that Spielberg directed was Munich, all the way back in 2005.* After the disappointingly saccharine affair that was 2011’s War Horse, Lincoln marks something of a return to form.
Tony Kushner, Pulitzer Prize winning playwright of Angels in America, deftly handles the duel conundrums of slavery and the Civil War – the conflicting need to end each one without expense of the other being the key question that occupies the mind of Daniel Day-Lewis’ Lincoln.
Day-Lewis is demonstrably the foremost screen actor in the world at this point – equally at home playing sensitive cripples (as in My Left Foot) or megalomaniacal oil barons (There Will Be Blood), I can only imagine the anxiety of anyone who finds himself opposite Day-Lewis in the Best Actor category come award’s season. His Lincoln is a gentle, understated individual, prone to off-the-cuff anecdotes about paintings of George Washington hanging in water closets or Euclid’s common notions. You are never left in doubt as to his fierce morality, his political acumen, or the intractability of his mind. He is the calm center of a world torn apart by cannon-fire and by prejudice.
Spielberg’s direction is unshowy, almost theatrical upon occasion, with plenty of dramatic showpieces to highlight his actor’s strengths – from the paneled hallways of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, through which the controversial Mrs. Lincoln drifts, Havisham-like, consumed by grief and rage, to the raucous House of Congress, in which Thaddeus Stevens, pro-abolition Republican, sits, crustily ensconced, ready to rise at a moments notice in vituperative defense of the 13th Amendment (Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones in the film’s two strongest and most focal supporting performances).
The main body of the film surrounds the politicking, the glad-handing, the betrayals, that surrounded those two major issues. Though Lincoln occasionally slips into (superlatively well-written) sermonizing, it never becomes weighed down with the weight of its historical baggage.
Running at two and a half hours, with a deluge of recognizable character actors flooding the screen at every moment – notably David Straitharn (Good Night and Good Luck) as Secretary of State William H. Seward, Jared Harris (Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Mad Men) as Lt. Generald Ulysses S. Grant, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Looper) as Lincoln’s oldest son Robert. They occasionally blur together and perhaps a few of them could have been eliminated, but they serve to provide texture to 1860s Washington. When actors the caliber of James Spader (multiple Emmy winner), Tim Blake Nelson, and John Hawke (Oscar nominee) are available to play a trio of comedy carpetbaggers carrying out a campaign of dirty tricks in order to secure the vote for their President, the more’s the merrier.
Lincoln handles itself with confidence, aplomb, and (for the most part) commendable lightness of touch. It’s hard not to feel a sense of elation when certain events come to pass – it’s almost enough to renew confidence in the democratic process, regardless of all the shady dealings that have gone on behind the scenes.
There’s a case to be made, without sounding too portentous, that this is a film America needs right now, especially following the acrimony of the recent election: a film where the Republican Party is a force for progress, where the majority of Democrats are the ones making an impassioned (if wrongheaded) plea for traditionalism. When Lincoln implores, “Shall we stop this bleeding?”, it’s hard not to, even outside of the context of civil war, to understand where he’s coming from.
Lincoln, to lay some charges against it, is perhaps overlong, and it’s cinematography, captured by Janusz Kaminski, tends to view the events playing out before us through an obfuscating chiaroscuro haze. It’s historical accuracy has been and continues to be debated – the role of black Americans, though they are shown as soldiers in the conflict and as house servants, is sidelined. When Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker and a freed slave, discusses with the Great Emancipator what the amendment means to her, we understand where she is coming from, but never who she truly is. In a world where to be black was to be devalued, dehumanized, this is perhaps an inevitable fault.
However, Lincoln has lofty ambitions and it straddles them well. That the 6’ Day-Lewis somehow manages to capture the stature of the 6’ 4” Lincoln, to loom over all yet seem to stoop while doing it, perfectly captures the spirit of the film, and is a minor miracle of itself.
Verdict: It may lack the anguish of Schindler’s List or the intimacy of Amistad – Spielberg’s previous engagement with the evils of slavery – but Lincoln is nevertheless a remarkable film. Even John Williams’ is a comparatively restrained affair. Compact and often touchingly subtle, when Lincoln heads at last for Ford’s Theater, we understand the weight of history upon his shoulders and the weariness soon to be lifted. Character study, societal account, political epic – Lincoln is showcase cinema. Bravo.