A more honest Abe Lincoln
Three (out of four)
Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln serves history better than it does the multiplex, and that’s a brave and worthy thing in a time of slippery truths and splintered attention spans.
Neither the title-implied biopic of the 16th U.S. president nor a typical “Spielbergian” assault on the senses and tear ducts, the film eschews the foreground in favour of the background, possibly to its box-office detriment.
Lincoln mines rich drama in the hard politicking and outright vote-buying behind passage of the slavery-abolishing 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1865, a feat that Lincoln, his fellow Republicans and supportive Democrats riskily accomplished while at the same time brokering an end to the country’s bloody Civil War.
Few grand scenes of battle or high emotion play before the unsentimental lens of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, a departure from the style Spielberg is known for and which he amply demonstrated just a year ago in War Horse.
An early moment sets the tone: instead of a flashback of Lincoln delivering the famed Gettysburg Address of 1863, Spielberg chooses to have the president listen quietly as two pairs of war-weary soldiers, one black and the other white, quote brief sections of it to him from memory.
Nor do we see much of the “Honest Abe” of storybook legend, the man whose towering physical stature, immense intellect, unimpeachable integrity and golden tongue combined to drag America out of the darkness of slavery and into the light of its own founding beliefs of human equality.
Daniel Day-Lewis’s vivid portrayal of Lincoln is instead grounded on the complex humanity of the man, one forced by circumstances to deal not only with epochal national concerns but also pressing family ones.
His strong resemblance to the president could have made this an easy assignment for Day-Lewis, but that would run counter to everything we know about this utterly devoted actor. He’s a cinch for a Best Actor nomination at the coming Oscars (which would be his fifth, with two wins to date) but he’s not inclined to curry favour either with audiences or Academy voters.
His Lincoln is grey of hair and beard, walks with a slight stoop and speaks in a higher register than our mind’s ear may wish to hear. He’s capable of thunder — we see glimpses — but he frequently comes across as timorous, in his dealings not only with political foes and allies but also with his high-strung wife Mary (Sally Field, impressive) and headstrong son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
This portrait of Lincoln, which scripter Tony Kushner (TV’s Angels in America, Spielberg’s Munich) loosely adapts from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s non-fiction bestseller Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, finds its focus in the marrying of high principles with low politics.
This Lincoln is strong enough to push his anti-slavery amendment through a bitterly divided House of Representatives, despite warnings from his wife, his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and Republican Party patriarch Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) that he’s risking his ample political capital and a Civil War solution by doing so.
Parallels with Barack Obama’s “Obamacare” battles are unmistakable but not overdone.
This Lincoln is pragmatic enough to make the “Honest Abe” label seem hilariously overstated. He allows three bumptious Republican bagmen (played with Shakespearean wit by James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson) to buy amendment votes with promises of golden appointments. He brings a lawyer’s skillful bluffs to his dealings with Pennsylvania Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a voluble abolitionist and financial scold, and with Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), a military leader whose Civil War endgame is fraught with danger.
This Lincoln is also gentle enough to spend quality time with his young son, to bore people with his endless morality yarns (he even quotes the mathematician Euclid) and to bemoan his lack of genuine human contact: “I’m very keenly aware of my very aloneness.”
All of these visions of Abraham Lincoln are brought together in Day-Lewis’s singular performance, and if the combination sometimes seems lacking in high drama — Spielberg has trained us all to expect it like Pavlov’s dogs — it never wants for the ring of historical accuracy.
Spielberg’s restraint, and that of composer John Williams, extends even to the assassination of Lincoln, all part of the early months of 1865 that defined the still-young American nation. The event is depicted mainly off camera.
Lincoln and its creators instead find inspiration in showing a fractious country and world that the American Revolution is forever a work in progress, one best judged by the wisdom of time and not by the noise of the moment.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.