The best Great Man biopics account for the fact that history favors a monolith. Over time, we lose sight of the details of a person’s life: the quirks, the flaws, the failures. A marble statue can’t account for a man’s shuffling gait or the twinkle in his eye when he launches into a dirty joke. America has a particular tendency to turn its great leaders of the past into monuments; we lionize and sterilize the Founding Fathers so that we can invoke their unassailable presence in political debate. Men are fallible – gods are incapable of error.
What a good film can do (or a good book, or any other piece of art, for that matter) is fracture that monolith. Steven Spielberg’s grand but flawed “Lincoln” tries to break through our autopilot perception of the 16th President as The Greatest of All Time. It is remarkably focused and tight for a Spielberg film – especially considering the film’s baity Civil War setting, the temptation to make a sweeping David Lean-style epic must’ve been considerable. But Spielberg intelligently recognizes that we are already well-steeped in the mythology of Lincoln: the beard and the stove-top hat we can get from every bargain-bin Halloween costume and every penny rattling around in our pockets. But what of the smaller moments? The casual conversations with Union soldiers and the late nights at home with his wife and children? The back-room meetings with cabinet members and political kingpins and lamplighters?
After a brief but brutal battle scene that feels derivative of “Saving Private Ryan” but nonetheless establishes the fatal consequences of all the vicious wordplay to follow, “Lincoln” immediately goes about undermining our high-and-mighty preconceptions of the man himself, at the same time emphasizing that it was ever thus. Not even five minutes into the film, we are treated to the entirety of Lincoln’s legendary Gettysburg Address, but not from the President – instead, the words are repeated by a duo of young soldiers, both of whom have lapped up their commander-in-chief’s celebrated persona. Very few people have the opportunity to witness their own immortalization in such a direct fashion.
Lincoln, as played with the kind of uncanny precision and flexibility we can always expect from Daniel Day-Lewis, is extremely wary of the power that his popularity provides him, even at the same time that he is willing to exploit it for political gain. His posture is slightly stooped, as if prematurely burdened with the weight of a thousand history textbooks to come. Spielberg goes to great lengths (sometimes skirting the edge of absurdity) to show how everyday citizens unconsciously fawned over Lincoln, and Day-Lewis is equal parts mischievous with and awed by the responsibility of being such a beloved leader.
It’s easy to see, only a month after the conclusion of one of the most contentious elections in history, what Spielberg sees as relevant and admirable in this portion of the Lincoln mythos. In Tony Kushner’s wonderfully sharp screenplay (based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s acclaimed biography “Team of Rivals”), Lincoln recognizes that leadership in a democracy is something of a two-way street: the will of a President is in a constant state of conflict or balance with the will of the people. A convincing leader can guide the nation in the direction he or she wishes, but they must ultimately rely on the persuasiveness and rightness of their message. Barack Obama might have been handed one of the most obstructive opposition parties in a century, but if he fails at some point the blame must fall on his own inability to win over the other side. After all, Lincoln managed to get the 13th Amendment passed even with half the country literally murdering the other half.
“Lincoln” focuses on the political machinations that ultimately convinced a nation to end slavery, as the President seeks out help from beleaguered cabinet members, radical abolitionists, wealthy conservatives and some good old under-the-table patronage to get what he wants. It’s a marvel to watch Day-Lewis and his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) constantly straddle the line between compromise and concession as they gradually win over figures like Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) and Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to their cause, along with a number of lame-duck Congressional Democrats tempted by the fruits offered by a Shakespearean buffoon trio of James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes. Lincoln’s opposition in Congress seems at time so cartoonishly racist and backwards that the miniscule advance of forward progress seems highly frustrating, but it is only from our modern vantage that we can so clearly see who is on the wrong side of history. Even Lincoln himself at times seems to have his doubts, but he does not let that uncertainty paralyze him. To him, complete inaction is a worse crime than trying something and being proven wrong.
That philosophy, however, only applies to the political arena, and where Spielberg’s film really deconstructs our glorified image of Lincoln is in his private conflicts. The quiet, folksy confidence he exudes among the general populace is completely lacking when he’s at home with his family, where he seems over-matched by his fierce, bereaved wife (an excellent Sally Field) and petulant elder son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). In these scenes we are shown a different man, a gentle spirit who was dealt an unendurable trauma in the death of one of his children, and never figured out how to heal his family the same way he healed his nation.
Had Spielberg stuck to this subtle contrast to the end, it would’ve made for an extremely well-wrought and unique portrayal of an American icon. However, Spielberg just can’t resist being Spielberg, and the film’s final moments veer dangerously into the kind of generalized sentimental blarney that it had previously so studiously avoided. Having stripped away some of the Great Man sheen (or at least applied an unusual color), Spielberg unnecessarily puts us through a factory-line sequence of Lincoln’s final hours: the theater, the assassination, Edwin Stanton’s declaration of “Now he belongs to the ages.” These scenes are completely redundant – they have lived on in our collective cultural imagination for over a century, and far more vividly than anything Spielberg can commit to film. It’s a blunt, heavy-handed misstep in a film that is otherwise so nimby crafted.
The technical elements of the film are, of course, impeccable, if a bit familiar – at this point, John Williams’ soaring scores and Janusz Kaminski’s exquisitely framed camerawork are just par for the course in a Spielberg film. What makes “Lincoln” quite unique, and laudable, in the director’s oeuvre is the prominence of Kushner’s dialogue and the down-the-line sterling work by every member of the huge ensemble cast. But for those final moments, it really feels like Spielberg took something of a back seat on this one; and all the better for it, as the massive personality of this Great Man is quite enough to fill the void.
Now playing in theaters.
Verdict: 3 1/4 out of 4 stars