I didn't expect much when I heard Spielberg was having a go at Lincoln, so I can't say the film he made about him is a disappointment. In fact it's very enjoyable in a nostalgic way -- like all those high-toned historical-biographical epics on which Hollywood used to thrive before audiences began to lose interest in history unless it flattered their self-image very specifically, as Gandhi and Braveheart did, instead of trying to elevate them as movies like Wilson and The Life of Emile Zola had.
If you thought Tony Kushner's involvement might make Lincoln an elevating experience, well, it certainly elevates the tone. Kushner's a serious writer, but so was William Faulkner and I don't see the Library of America publishing a handsome edition of the screenplays he worked on. (Kushner did write Munich, which was a little more grown-up than what we're used to from Spielberg. But as I said when it came out, while Munich has some existential-thriller trappings, it's existentialism for dummies -- compare it to a story about wet work like Army of Shadows and you can see how sentimental it really is.)
Here's something Spielberg said about Kushner to Deadline Hollywood:
SPIELBERG: It wasn’t anything that he did on Munich that convinced me. I knew he was the right guy for the job when I saw Angels In America for the first time on Broadway.Paddy Chayefsky! I guess it's possible Spielberg was making a mean joke. But I think he sincerely admired Kushner's dramaturgy, and also that, like Chayefsky, Kushner can make sententiousness go down easy; the audience wouldn't question that something important was being discussed, but they also wouldn't be bored. Look at the first scene of Lincoln, after a vicious, muddy skirmish between black Union soldiers and Confederates: A pair of black soldiers stand in the rain and describe the battle; one is slightly more aggressive in complaining about his regiment's privations than the other; Lincoln -- revealed only gradually to be the man they're talking to, and sitting under a canopy -- seems interested, even slightly amused, says little, reveals nothing. White soldiers come in; they recite the Gettysburg Address till they get stuck on the ending. When they have gone, the quarrelsome black soldier finishes it.
DEADLINE: What specifically about Angels In America swayed you?
SPIELBERG: It showed me that Tony has a vivid introspective knowledge of what makes people tick. And he expresses his thoughts in words, in sentences and ideas, and the silences between the words in a way that reminded me of Paddy Chayefsky in his heyday.
Okay, so it makes Chayefsky look like Friedrich Durrenmatt. It plays well, though, and is just Spielberg's speed -- uplift with class.
The plot centers on the fight to pass the 13th Amendment, in the course of which Lincoln is revealed to be a consummate wheeler-dealer -- but that has always been part of the Lincoln legend; as Tad Gallagher observes about Ford's Lincoln, he's "not above a bit of dissimulation, cheating or force to get things done." Maybe this is part of why we love Lincoln -- he shows that even when your ambition is a little engine that knows no rest, you may still do great things that can justify it. That Lincoln's ambition was turned toward ending slavery makes it easier to believe; you probably couldn't get the same kind of drama out of a battle to pass the Revenue Act.
Munich was about idealists who wade in blood but somehow keep their souls clean, and Lincoln is about a man to whom the muck of politics does not adhere even as he clambers through the filthy roominghouse attic of his political fixers. Abe is practically magical; at one point he suddenly appears in Edwin Stanton's war room, unobserved till he breaks his silence. Several times (or maybe it just seemed like several times) his cabinet is near rebellion, and Abe defuses the situation with some cornpone humor (which, frankly, must be magic as the jokes aren't that good). Much of William Seward's dialogue could be boiled down to "Ooooh, you'll be the death of me yet, Abraham Lincoln!" Lincoln confounds friend and enemy alike, and finally gets the big job done.
There's also some Lincoln family drama in there, but rather than "humanizing" Lincoln it adds to his mysterious quality. Political talk frequently creeps into Abe's discussions with his wife Mary. She is shown more than once to use politics to communicate her feelings to him. Abe accepts and takes part in this mode of discourse. (In one scene, when she tongue-lashes Thaddeus Stevens within his hearing, Abe takes it with the same mysterious amusement he shows in his first scene; no "It's bad enough when you act like that in the privacy of our own home" for this Lincoln.) In another scene Mary has sunk again into her recurring depression over their dead son Willie, and Lincoln goes to comfort her; though his impatience flashes, he recovers and explains that he couldn't allow himself to be taken over by grief as she is; he explains this as his personal weakness, but it is evident that it also involves his duty, from which he must not waver. Thus he gently filibusters her into submission.
Americans have a nose for hypocrisy (and a distrust of ambiguity) and like to think their heroes are the same people at home as they are in the arena. This Lincoln meets that test to such an extent that the restless mind may wonder over it; when he is not engaged in politics, where dissimulation is taken for granted, what is he really thinking and feeling?
Gentle as he goes, Lincoln is shown to have a capacity for wrath, and at one point he slaps his son Robert for suggesting he's afraid of his wife. This moment stands out emotionally; for once Lincoln's reaction suggests actual self-doubt, rather than the ruminative self-debate he displays elsewhere ("Do you think we choose to be born? Or are we fitted to the times we're born into?"). We keep up our wondering about Lincoln in the actual political sphere: When he appears to get fed up with the cabinet and rails that he is "clothed with immense power," is this feeling overtaking him, or just a trick to sway minds weaker than his?
Simultaneous with this portraiture -- which is after all the come-on; there's a reason the movie is not called Team of Rivals after the book -- there's the Congressional fight over the 13th Amendment and various related intrigues; these are handled ably (even amusingly, as when W.N. Bilbo proposes a skeezy deal to the wrong Congressman, who is armed with a front-loading pistol), and achieve the necessary interest in how the thing was done. In this are some grace notes that are emotionally satisfying, none more so than Thaddeus Stevens bringing home the House Bill of the 13th Amendment and presenting it to a woman who appears to be his housekeeper. But by an large it's all just an excuse to bring back Lincoln, a reliable act on the circuit. The filmmakers even tack on a death scene and part of the Second Inaugural at the end, in case you feel you haven't gotten your money's worth.
Though I wonder what about John Williams' modest score rates an Oscar nomination, every craft aspect of the movie is very well done. The acting's a feast. Daniel Day-Lewis' approach is just right for the otherworldly Lincoln; he rarely meets anyone's eye, yet he seems sociable; his conversation is discursive, but you would never imagine that he isn't paying attention. Sally Field finds a way to make poor Mary Todd's neurosis interesting: She at least begins each outburst in the direction of her subject, and lets its energy build until it is clearly a little larger than the conversation. Tommy Lee Jones was clever to make Stevens so good at his job that he hardly has to think about the sequence of insults he's about to unleash.
I especially admired some short performances that haven't gotten much attention. There are the Kushner stalwarts Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel as a regular, down-home, all-American pair of bigots, and Stephen Spinella as Stevens' purist associate Litton. Jackie Earle Haley as the Confederate Vice-President, Alexander Stephens, figures in an interesting sequence. In a doomed negotiation with Lincoln, while his fellow Rebs bluster, Stephens (previously shown in a meeting with black Union officers to be smarter than his comrades) tells the President that the war will end not only slavery but the South's way of life. Stephens shows no obvious outrage over this, nor regret, though we may assume he has felt both. Here Spielberg does something that struck me as significant; he photographs the already strange-looking Haley in an unflattering light that makes him seem slightly deformed. I imagine the idea was not to dehumanize him in the usual sense of undercutting his argument by making him look bad, but to suggest that he represents a literally alien species, and that he is aware that it is passing from existence. Maybe there's just something in Spielberg that always makes me think of extra-terrestrials.