Lincoln: By the People, For the People

by Ethan Alter November 9, 2012 6:00 am
<i>Lincoln</i>: By the People, For the People

There are many different ways to approach a man who lived as monumental a life as Abraham Lincoln. You could, for instance, focus entirely on his early years as a lawyer as John Ford did in the 1939 classic, Young Mr. Lincoln. Or you could zero in on the Civil War, with Lincoln's life taking a backseat to the fighting. Or you could even turn him into a vampire hunter, using the supernatural as a metaphor for Lincoln's desire to see every individual freed from the bonds of slavery, be they property of plantation owners or bloodsuckers. In the case of Lincoln, Steven Spielberg's oh-so-prestigious entry in the awards season sweepstakes, the director telescopes his subject's life into roughly a single month: January 1865, when a newly re-elected Lincoln used his ferocious will and political capital to ensure the passage of the 13th Amendment, which officially outlawed slavery in the United States. That's right, in a way this is a live-action, feature-length version of that old Schoolhouse Rock ditty "I'm Just a Bill" (or it's even better Simpsons parody "Amendment to Be") where viewers are invited to watch the long, contentious and often ugly process of how the proverbial political sausage gets made in Washington.

Sadly, Lincoln doesn't have a tune that's as catchy as "I'm Just a Bill." On the other hand, it does feature one of cinema's greatest contemporary actors delivering yet another remarkable performance. It may be predictable to heap praise on Daniel Day-Lewis, but there's just no way around it: the guy is incredible. Day-Lewis is famous for living -- not simply performing -- his roles and that level of immersion is obvious from his first scene. It helps that the film resolutely depicts him as an ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances. This Lincoln is accessible and approachable -- a man who is at ease in anyone's company, from the officials in his cabinet to black soldiers in the Union Army. The common mistake most biopics make is to inflate the subject's self-importance until he or she is larger than life. Day-Lewis keeps Lincoln firmly rooted in the ground, a product of his place and time, who nevertheless saw the future and rose to embrace it.

His performance sets the tone for the overall style of the movie. There's none of the grand visual sweep that you might associate with a Spielberg-directed period piece. Apart from a few cutaways to bloody battlefields, the bulk of the movie takes place far away from the front, inside a series of small, confined rooms at the White House as well as on Capitol Hill. It's here that we watch Lincoln -- rendered weary by the long slog of waging this war and the various tragedies that have befallen his family, but still very much committed to the cause and in full possession of his wits and homespun sense of humor -- strike the bargains and make the horse trades that will see the 13th amendment passed. It's a tedious, drawn-out process that involves the Herculean efforts of his Secretary of State, William Seward (David Strathairn), three savvy proto-lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) and abolitionist Republican Congressmen like Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). Standing in their way is a firmly entrenched Democratic Party (primarily represented here by Lee Pace's Fernando Wood), flip-flopping representatives like Ohio's Clay Hawkins (Walton Goggins) and, of course, the Confederacy, which has approached Washington with a peace plan that could scuttle the 13th Amendment outright.

Working in part from noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin book, Team of Rivals, Kushner's script takes policy debates and Congressional procedure seriously, resisting narrative shortcuts that might speed the proceedings along. This is a dense, wordy movie, one that's unafraid to take its time, trusting that the audience will be fascinated enough by the reality of the political process to keep up. And the filmmakers are mostly right about that. The behind-the-scenes wrangling really is compelling, especially since we're only two years removed from the passage of the Affordable Care Act, another instance where a President and his political party achieved a landmark and seemingly impossible legislative victory. (It's obvious that Kushner and Spielberg have that case in the forefront of their minds as well; there are lines here that echo sentiments -- both pro and con -- that politicians expressed throughout the health care debate.) The slow, deliberate build-up also pays off wonderfully in the movie's single best sequence: the historic vote on the House floor, with each representative offering up his "yay" or "nay" on the 13th Amendment. It's the most improbably entertaining climax this side of Argo's waiting-in-line-at-the-airport finale.

At the same time, the procedural aspect of Lincoln is so well-rendered, it actually calls attention to the less successful elements of the movie, starting with the scenes that place a more typically Spielbergian emphasis on family. When he's not wrangling with politicians, Lincoln has to contend with his unpredictable wife Mary (Sally Field) and rebellious son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but these moments feel like afterthoughts that have been grafted onto the narrative out of habit rather than dramatic necessity. They also highlight the wide chasm that separates the film's star from the rest of the cast; where he vanishes into his role, the other actors are all too visible. Put it this way: when Day-Lewis appears on screen, you think, "Lincoln." When Gordon-Levitt appears onscreen, you think, "Joseph Gordon-Levitt with 19th-century facial hair." That stars-playing-dress-up feel even extends to old pros like Jones and Spader, both of whom are essentially playing variations on their familiar screen images (the curmudgeon and the weirdo respectively) clad in appropriate period clothing. It breaks the reality that Spielberg and Day-Lewis are otherwise working so hard to foster. It's also unfortunate that the director can't resist letting the movie run about ten minutes longer than it should, depicting the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination if not the act itself. Lying there on his death bed, surrounded by mourners and bathed in glowing light, Lincoln becomes what Day-Lewis has tried to avoid for the previous two-and-a-half hours: a symbol, rather than a man. It's a needlessly grandiose ending to a movie -- and a president -- that functions best without all that pomp and circumstance.

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