Film review: ‘Lincoln’ As Noble Man More Powerful Than Myth

When we mythologize real-life figures it becomes easy to admire them while keeping them at a distance; how can we possibly live up to their extraordinary words and deeds? But when we remember they are just as human as ourselves, that they have triumphed over their imperfections when it mattered most, we can embrace and emulate them.

If there is any message from Steven Spielberg’s stirring Lincoln, it lies in the fact that our revered 16th President was a flesh-and-blood mortal, from his high-pitched voice and shuffling gait to his impatience and anger when others, his wife included, opposed him. Abraham Lincoln didn’t always make the right calls – he certainly struggled as Commander-in-Chief to find the right commanders to succeed against Confederate forces, to give one example. But in the end his personal nobility helped save our country and end the scourge of slavery.

Spielberg’s most important choices may have been to hire Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich) to write the screenplay and Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot, There Will Be Blood) to play Lincoln. It was also a good idea to base the storyline in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent 2005 book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.” Those decisions built a strong foundation for this feature.

The movie wisely doesn’t aim for a sweeping biographical portrait; instead it primarily looks at the political machinations behind the passage of the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The time frame for Lincoln goes from January to April 1865; it may be a small amount of time to cover, but the president’s words and actions during those final months of his life sum him up well.

We know from history that the amendment was passed (and ratified by enough states during 1865 to make it the first amendment adopted to the constitution since 1804). We also know the Civil War essentially ended in April 1865 and that Lincoln was assassinated just as it was concluding. But the fascinating back-story to that period still makes this film something of a thriller despite our knowledge of how things turned out.

That’s particularly true of the fight to get the U.S. House of Representatives to pass the amendment by a two-thirds majority (the U.S. Senate had cleared the measure the previous year). Lincoln was not only up against states-rights Democrats who believed he was a tyrannical dictator; in his own party there was a conservative faction that sought conciliation with the South and believed the GOP’s radical-wing abolitionists would be the undoing of their attempts to end the war.

In Lincoln that conservative faction is represented by the patrician Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook); the radicals are led by the fiery Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones). Getting them to work together isn’t easy, but making sure there are enough defections/abstentions among Democrat ranks is even tougher. For that Lincoln asks Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to do whatever it takes; a motley and often amusing trio of operatives played by Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawkes and James Spader are hired to woo reluctant lawmakers with political appointments (for a glimpse at them watch the video clip below this review).

Kushner enjoys the rich flow of words as much as any contemporary playwright, and Lincoln is a very talky film, though it’s hard to imagine how the ideas and issues involved in this story could have been better conveyed with less dialogue. The movie’s images engagingly tell their part of the tale as well, though – frequent Spielberg collaborator Janusz Kaminski frames everything from battle carnage to back-room dealing with the same sensitivity he’s brought to the cinematography of such motion pictures as Schlindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and War Horse.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton may or may not have actually said “Now he belongs to the ages” at Lincoln’s deathbed, but Day-Lewis’ performance certainly belongs to the ages if any film acting does. While it’s not surprising that he’s so incredible given his past work it’s nevertheless awesome to watch.

Day-Lewis incorporates the vocal and physical characteristics the president’s contemporaries wrote he had into his portrayal, but it’s the human interactions in scenes with his wife Mary (played superbly by Sally Field), members of his cabinet (particularly the ever-reliable Strathairn as Seward and the ever-enjoyable Bruce McGill as Stanton) and others that make his work so mesmerizing and astonishing. One of the best moments comes when he’s at the War Department late one night sending and receiving telegrams; his conversation with two soldiers provides us with a clear vision of Lincoln’s frailty and strength as well as his doubts and certainties.

The supporting cast provides vitality and color to the story, particularly the work of Jones, who obviously relishes playing the silver-tongued and thoroughly committed abolitionist Stevens. Spader is a hoot, and Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate Vice President Andrew Stephens provides a more sympathetic figure than one might first expect given the side he’s on.

Of course, this is drama and not history, so some liberties have been taken to condense actual events into an entertaining 149-minute movie. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to criticize from the historical perspective, however –Northwestern University professor and historian Kate Masur has a strong argument that black characters in the film play too passive a role (which was published on Monday by The New York Times – click here to read it).

But just as there are no perfect people there are no perfect films. Lincoln powerfully demystifies its venerable subject, bringing us closer to the man behind the Mount Rushmore/Lincoln Memorial myth. Hopefully that encourages us all to live, to paraphrase some of his inspiring words, with malice toward none and with charity for all.

Lincoln (thelincolnmovie.com) opens today (Nov. 16) in wide release nationally. For locations and showtimes in the greater Nashville area check the websites of Regal Cinemas (www.regmovies.com), Carmike Cinemas (www.carmike.com) and Malco Theatres (www.malco.com). Rated PG-13 for an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage and brief strong language, 149 min. Directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Tony Kushner, partly based on the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommy Lee Jones, Bruce McGill, James Spader, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Gulliver McGrath, Gloria Reuben, Stephen Henderson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes.

 

*Photos (including those by David James) courtesy DreamWorks Pictures and 20th Century Fox.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).