Spielberg’s long-gestating biopic depicts Daniel Day-Lewis’ Honest Abe trying to force thru the lame-duck House of Representatives a constitutional amendment outlawing slavery.
Lincoln insists the outgoing House pass it by the month’s end as these unseated Democrats have nothing to lose, and because, thanks to facilitation by Lincoln’s Republican Party elder Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), the Confederacy (represented by Jackie Earle Haley’s VP) are ready to negotiate an end to the Civil War. Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) values such a peace above Lincoln’s amendment but agrees to fund three political fixers (James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson) in their attempt to secure the necessary Democrat votes, even as Secretary of War Stanton (Bruce McGill) bludgeons the South with a vicious naval assault on Wilmington to hasten the end of the war. Meanwhile Lincoln has to contend with his estranged son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and long-suffering wife Mary (Sally Field) as much as radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones).
Spielberg’s Lincoln is an incessant raconteur so it’s fitting that Lincoln made me think of Groucho Marx’s anecdote of the lousy film producer nobody could bring themselves to fire because he so reminded them of Lincoln. Lincoln is awash with familiar faces; Abe can’t send a telegram without falling over a Girls star, Lukas Haas and Dane DeHaan pop up just to recite his Gettysburg Address to him. And a great dignity falls over all, from those who signed up for trivial parts because it was a film about the Great Liberator, to Steven Spielberg directing with reverent anonymity, to DP Janusz Kaminski reining himself in to the occasional lens flare and a muted lighting scheme. Day-Lewis’ affected gait and high-pitched voice attempts to humanise the legend but inevitably and unfortunately recalls Sean Penn in This Must Be the Place.
Tony Kushner’s desperately unfocused script clamours for a Sorkin rewrite. Despite establishing a ticking clock there is no sense of urgency until, with 4 days left to the vote, Lincoln descends from Olympus to cajole Democrats. There are great scenes: Lincoln explaining to his Cabinet with characteristic intricacy the legal dubiousness of his Emancipation Proclamation, arguing with Stevens over the necessity for compromise, and discoursing on Euclid and thus changing his own mind about negotiating a peace. But, while the under-used fixers amuse, we flail in uninteresting Congressional debates or Lincoln’s wonted quoting of Shakespeare. JGL is wasted in a storyline which stunningly never addresses how much affection Lincoln showers on his private secretary, Johnny. Johnny being John Hay, who was Secretary of State to Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Such was the valuable mentoring that Lincoln denied his own son…
And there’s Sally Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln by way of Brothers & Sisters… She nicely upbraids Stevens, but, her hysterical grief is so histrionic in a scene with Abe, Day-Lewis’ gestures so theatrical, and Spielberg’s shot-selection so disconcertingly low-angle, that you half-expect the camera to edge back an inch and reveal a proscenium arch. Such theatricality gives us Lincoln’s ridiculous final line, leaving Seward to stomp off for his fatal engagement at Ford’s Theatre – “I suppose I should be going, but I would rather stay”. Like every Spielberg flick this century this film misses a good ending and needlessly keeps going and going, and even bafflingly resurrects Lincoln to deliver the Second Inaugural. John Adams is the gold standard that Lincoln had to equal to prove cinema could best TV for intelligent historical drama of ideas. Lincoln falls short…
This is a handsomely mounted tilt at a worthy, important subject; assuming, as the Oscars do, that important subjects rather than great scripts generate epochal films. To give Lincoln the verdict, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”