Daniel Day-Lewis gives us the president we want in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. And Spielberg gives us the movie we expect. Positioned for Oscars and likely to get them, it’s a canonization fer sure, as Abe might say. Spielberg enjoys such an exalted stature in the public mind that he could not do anything less.
At the same time, the filmmakers bestow upon Lincoln a highly calibrated sanctity, one that acknowledges the politician behind the man behind the image behind the myth. Like the picture of Mr. Lewis in the ubiquitous print ads for the movie—think of a penny, held at a downward angle—the Lincoln of “Lincoln” is slightly askew.
The fractured humanity of Spielberg’s Lincoln—who is also the Lincoln of the screenwriter Tony Kushner and the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin—makes him endearing but also precludes the movie’s being dismissed as an American liberal whitewash of a problematic president. Lincoln had his issues. As Mr. Kushner told this writer, the 16th president came from a state that was institutionally hostile to blacks; he was personally acquainted with very few; he was genuinely surprised when he met one who could read and write. He was not entirely comfortable with the idea of racial equality.
But there is a sense throughout the film that Abraham Lincoln’s education parallels the nation’s. And this raises questions about the timing of the movie’s release. It is hard to miss the message one gets from “Lincoln” that a vote against Barack Obama is a vote against Abraham Lincoln. And yet the film was held back until three days after the election. (Spielberg’s response to questions about this have ranged from oblique to ridiculous.)
If one were being unkind, one would say that Mr. Spielberg, who is as in control of the marketing machinery surrounding his movies as any director alive, considers his film above mere presidential politics. If so, he should have informed his screenwriter. The incandescent Mr. Kushner (“Angels in America”), drawing largely from his fellow Pulitzer laureate Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, creates a Lincoln of contradictory parts and an iconic whole. A weary sainthood hangs on his shoulders like the shawl that the increasingly wraithlike Abe wears as he prowls the White House halls at night, worrying whether he can end slavery and war without one plan canceling out the other. In a very early scene involving a battlefield visit, shot over Lincoln’s shoulder, at first, to ease us into Lewis’s uncanny impersonation, several soldiers are given an audience with their president, including an educated black man from Massachusetts. He bemoans the slow pace at which the Army promotes African-American officers. At this rate, he says, black men might get the vote in, oh, 100 years. Not to think about President Obama at this moment is impossible.
Mr. Kushner’s screenplay is far more sophisticated than the film around it, which, per Mr. Spielberg’s usual M.O., relies on John Williams’s intrusive music, which goes so far as to emulate Gabriel’s trumpet and is always leading one’s heart by the hand (if that’s possible). Mr. Kushner’s intentions might be equally obvious, but the viewer doesn’t feel quite so manipulated. When Lincoln explains the intellectual gymnastics he had to perform in issuing an Emancipation Proclamation that usurps the states’ rights issue at the heart of the slavery question, it is lawyerly but thoroughly accessible and illuminates for the legally unschooled viewer (like this one) the knotty questions with which the president had to contend. Instead of Lincoln’s biography, it is the fight over the 13th Amendment, which is what really freed the slaves, that serves as the plotline of the movie, and its intrigues seem to exist only half in the past. In fact, when the Rahm Emanuel-like secretary of state, William Seward (David Strathairn), assesses the odds of the amendment passing the House (“When have the Republicans ever been unanimous on anything?”), we are jerked back to the present as abruptly as if Mitt Romney suddenly showed up dressed as Mary Todd Lincoln.
Speaking of whom: Playing a flying nun early in your career seems to make people take you less seriously than they might; and despite two Oscars for Best Actress, Sally Field is never mentioned in the same breath as, say, Meryl Streep. This may change. Field’s Mary Todd Lincoln, usually dismissed as one of the premier loonies of American history (thanks largely to Gore Vidal) is given a complex, contoured portrayal by Ms. Field, who applies layers of character and conflict onto a first lady whose personal grief matched that of any soldier’s mother, North or South. In the film, as in fact, she is a woman of emotional volatility, which has caused her husband no small degree of anxiety. But she is also cultured, intellectual, educated and clever. When she dresses down her husband’s chief congressional ally, Thaddeus Stevens (a terrific Tommy Lee Jones), she does so with surgical sarcasm and brittle eloquence. She is also, in this one key scene, clearly a woman who is barely keeping it together, played by an actress who has it all together.
Then there’s Mr. Lewis, who, as many will agree, is the greatest actor currently making movies and has been such for quite a few years and in quite a few films: “The Boxer,” “The Crucible,” “Gangs of New York,” “In the Name of the Father.” While far too much emphasis is placed on the importance of the Academy Awards—which are, after all, industry awards given in an industry town—Mr. Lewis has won the Best Actor prize twice, for “My Left Foot” and “There Will Be Blood.” And if he wins for “Lincoln,” he will become the only actor ever to win three.
No one could be more deserving. While the movie around him is typical Spielberg—too much music, too much sentiment, too much movie—Mr. Lewis occupies its center like a pearl in a particularly untidy oyster. His Lincoln is gentle and fierce, philosophic and poetic, a crackerbarrel yarn-spinner and a ruthless manipulator. In fact, much of the pure fun to be had from “Lincoln” comes in watching the three shady operatives that Seward sends out, with Lincoln’s tacit approval, to buy votes. The trio (James Spader, Tim Blake Nelson and John Hawkes) hilariously do their dirty business among the capital’s craven and soon-to-be-morally-compromised congressmen. And in this, we can look back on the Washington of Abraham Lincoln with a lofty, superior attitude: Our politics would never stoop so low or be so corrupt—not so transparently, at any rate.
At the same time, the questions of political courage that make “Lincoln” as much a suspense thriller as a biopic are not so easily answered now. The resolution of slavery called for independence of mind and allegiance to something other than party, conditions which seem at this point in our politics all but antediluvian. In very recent years, blocs of politicians have voted unanimously for matters far less important than the freedom of their fellow man, and likely will again. For all the excesses of the film, it seems that Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kushner, and perhaps Mr. Lewis too, recognize that “Lincoln” is not about evoking nostalgia or pride or heroism, but a longing for moral clarity. And it will, as long as we are the country Abe Lincoln thought we were.