“Lincoln” is not a biopic of President Abraham Lincoln, as the title might suggest, but a look at the legislative process through which he came to be known as the Great Emancipator. Large swaths of the movie are more akin to CSPAN 1865 than a comprehensive look at the man or the issues of his time. It’s a quietly strange film, a combination of director Steven Spielberg’s trademark sentimentality and wonky Congressional procedure.
When it was reported years ago that Spielberg had taken an interest in a Lincoln film, the rumor mill indicated that the project might depict the 16th President as a less-than-perfect leader. But the finished film shows no signs of this ever being a consideration. Spielberg’s assessment of Honest Abe is nothing short of reverent; played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln is depicted as saintly and burdened only by the mildest of flaws forced upon him under dire circumstances.
“Lincoln,” set almost entirely within Washington offices lit solely by narrow beams of light piercing through window-glass, succeeds at illustrating the difficulties (and corruptions of) passing major, potentially unpopular legislation. But in limiting the film’s scope to the halls of power, Spielberg deprives the audience of the moral urgency of repealing slavery. We know that slavery is a great evil, as do most of the story’s major players, but Spielberg’s choice to paint the practice as a merely unsettling concept rather than a tangible institution minimizes the stakes of all the legislative drama. Saturated with floor debates and back-room negotiations, “Lincoln” couldn’t be less like Spielberg’s 1998 drama “Amistad,” wherein complex black characters and a candid depiction of slavery’s brutality lent the legal proceedings a considerable moral imperative. This film’s precious few black characters are patronizingly depicted as quietly noble, their piousness surpassed only by that of the President.
Day-Lewis gives a wonderful, measured turn as Lincoln, completely disappearing into character in the way that audiences have come to expect of the actor. Even as the film engages in idol-worship of Lincoln and goes on tangents about his relationships with his sons (Spielberg’s trademark father issues), Day-Lewis manages to keep Abe a remarkably grounded character. Unfortunately, he has his work cut out for him, especially as Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner even so go far as to foolishly bookend “Lincoln” with two sentimental, unnecessary scenes whose only function is to blatantly portray Lincoln as a savior figure. Why include these moments, when the remainder of the film makes clear their admiration for Lincoln’s moral courage and leadership?
Day-Lewis’ performance is bolstered by two key supporting actors. First is Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, an intelligent woman whose melancholy over the death of son Willie brought her to the brink of lunacy. The other is Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens, the curmudgeonly radical Republican congressman and abolitionist, one of the period’s few men who advocated complete racial equality (the film conveniently sidesteps the possibility that Lincoln really didn’t consider blacks worthy of truly equal treatment).
“Lincoln” will doubtlessly receive four score and then some prestigious awards nominations, and those for acting will be deserved. That said, the film is destined to be minor Spielberg, as it’s a lengthy, talky, unnecessary work. “Lincoln” does say something about politics, but what useful does it say about Lincoln, his contemporaries, or slavery? Very little, which is a shame for a film set in the most important place of one of America’s defining moments.