SPIELBERG’S “LINCOLN” – BRILLIANT. Finally after wasting his talent on the saccharine trivia of “War Horse”, Steven Spielberg’s enormous talent has been complemented by the comparably enormous talents of Daniel Day Lewis playing a convincingly thoughtful, charming, funny Lincoln, script-writer Tony Kushner (who gave us “Angels in America” one of the best plays of the last decade) and the always extraordinary Janusz Kaminski’s, his cinematographer.
This is a movie as somber and serious as its subject – essentially America’s second founding moment (Washington’s wresting of the country from colonialism was its first; Lincoln’s abolition of slavery was its second). It is set in the middle of the bloody civil war. Spielberg show us a nation divided, the bodies piling up – so many brutalized corpses sinking into the mud – and the President facing the awesome responsibility of choosing between ending the carnage or ending slavery.
The responsibility and grave consequences of the choice weighs on the President’s shoulders and we see the tall and spindly-slender Day Lewis, who physically seems to have been sculpted to play this role, bent and bowed under by its burden. At one point someone tells him that he’s aged a decade in the last year and we witness this in the lattice-work of lines that betray his care-worn face. Who knows what Lincoln was really like, but Spielberg’s “Lincoln” offers us both the icon – often Janusz shoot him like some sort of official presidential portrait, his strong profile outlined against a dark foreboding background – and the man. He is at times stern and unwaveringly focused on the task ahead, and at other times, garrulous, funny, charming and seductively manipulative. Daniel Day Lewis flickers in the half-light from one mood to another – from introspective to angry – in beats of an eyelid.
It is a master-class of acting, of inhabiting a character and pulling you into his introspection, his fears and vision through the modulations of his voice, the fidgets of his fingers, the stillness when all around is in motion.
What Spielberg has managed to do in this so very restrained movie is to squeeze every ounce of heart-stopping drama from what is essentially a movie about law-making. It is the film-maker’s show and tell about the agonizing birth of his nation. He highlights the fact that the abolition was dragged into life not as a result of the high-mindedness of the House of Representatives, but through Lincoln’s perseverance, his conniving relentlessness (he basically bribed and bullied into being the thirteenth amendment of the Constitution) and the sly positioning of abolition not as recognition of racial equality, but as a legalization of equality in the eyes of the law.
Maybe it’s America’s election of a Black president, or maybe it’s simply coincidence, but this year we’ve been treated by two magnificent movies set around the same period and dealing with the same subject: slavery and prejudice in America (Tarantino’s exuberant comedic version, “Django Unchained” and Spielberg’s classy “Lincoln”). Tarantino is overt in his commentary that racism is still alive and well; Spielberg’s take is more nuanced.
Tarantino points to the deep hypocrisy of the South with its miscegenation and complex, almost incestuous Black/White intermingling. Spielberg highlights the grand divide between the two nations (nothing’s really changed here – the flag of Texas still flies, and, in the absence of the KKK, is still the anti-integration symbol) and the naked fear that abolition would be a financial disaster. Slavery, climate change – funny how the US tries so hard to ignore those things that could inconvenience their bank accounts.
But I digress.
No review of “Lincoln” would be complete without highlighting two other sterling performances – that of Tommy Lee Jones, as the curmudgeonly Thaddeus Stevens, a fiery abolitionist (his face as craggy as Mount Rushmore). Tommy Lee Jones – all fire, brimstone and uncompromising passion is the counterpoint to Daniel Day Lewis’s deep calmness. Spielberg’s pairing of contrasts adds to the texture and rhythm of the film. The other class act is that of Wayne Duval as an unsmiling Senator Bluff Wade (OK, this is a very small part, but Wayne is my friend, so I thought I’d give him a shout out)
Spielberg is essentially a director of men (“Schindler’s List”, “Saving Private Ryan” the Indiana Jones movies, “Catch Me if You Can” etc). The women (here headlined by a tough-minded Sally Field as Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln) are peripheral. They remain choric figures, glowing somewhere in the background, contributing to the narrative, but outside its gravitational pull. And, apart from his schmaltzy side (witness as I noted, “War Horse”) this is his weakness (I refer you to “The Colour Purple”). But with the strengths he possesses as a director, who’s complaining.