Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a sweeping, triumphal piece of filmmaking that is nonetheless memorable for its small, intimate moments. Those belong, like everything in this film, to the title character, the 16th president of the United States played by the incomparable Daniel Day-Lewis. Day-Lewis likes big, showy roles – Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood, Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York – and Lincoln offers him that, but with a personality that dominates via a dynamic, understated charm.
The film opens towards the end of the Civil War. The North and South are locked in a stalemate. Gettysburg has been won; the speech delivered. But the future of the union is still up for grabs. Lincoln has issued the emancipation proclamation, which ostensibly freed the southern slaves. But there is a problem. The legality of that document may be called into question if and when the war ends. In the meantime, Lincoln believes he needs to make an all-out dash to pass the 13th amendment to the constitution that will abolish slavery. Politically, it’s double-edged. On the one hand, the threat of the amendment may provoke the south to hastily call-off the war in an effort to block ratification in congress. On the other hand, the succession leaves open a narrowing gap of time that might make passage of the amendment possible.
This is the groundwork, and Spielberg, a masterful storyteller, ably navigates a veritable minefield of narrative convulsion. Sub-plots spin off at a frantic pace, as political operatives work to cajole congressmen onto the president’s side, cabinet members arrange secret meetings with representatives from the Confederacy, and high-stakes drama plays out in the chambers of the Capitol. Spielberg also manages to work in his familiar themes of fathers and sons, setting against the president, the desires of his two boys — one who wishes to quit college and join the army, and another young boy who has free reign in the White House, busting in-and-out of Lincoln’s meetings with childish questions and concerns. Their role is to balance the complexity of the man at the film’s center, the president-as-father, navigating discipline and indulgence out of love of country.
All of these themes and narratives seems to spin about in Lincoln, because the center of the film, the president, possesses considerable gravitational pull. Daniel Day-Lewis interprets the character of Abraham Lincoln as a kind of avuncular rascal. As war and political mayhem peculate around him, he moves coolly and suavely about, chatting easily with politicians and commoners alike, seemingly more interested in telling stories than chewing on policy. This frustrates some of his associates, but it delights us. When Day-Lewis is on screen, we are enamored by his presence, and he holds us tight-gripped, spinning yarns or making evident in his crooked gate the great burden of presidential pressure.
Spielberg always packs his films with a little something for everyone: we laugh, we cry, there’s excitement and heartbreak. There are a few scenes that depict the viciousness of war with the same emphatic, graphic vividness that made the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan so memorable (and controversial). And there’s certainly some of Spielberg’s sweet tooth sentimentality on display as well. But unlike last year’s War Horse, that neither dominates the drama nor is it asked bear the emotional impact of the film. That task is always Day-Lewis’s, from opening shot to last, even as Lincoln lies on his deathbed, the actor controls the room, his heavy-leadenness stealing the limelight.
As with War Horse, Janusz Kaminski is back behind the camera for Spielberg, and his glossy nostalgic imagery, the soft-lit backgrounds that flatten landscapes and cut sharp, vivid, and colorful figures against the backdrop, is more suited for this story. Lincoln is an American heliography, a grand and lush story of resilience. It is an honest portrayal of the muck of democracy, but more so an exultation of the kind of personality-power required to reign-in a bucking country. As a historical piece, we come away with a vivid political portrait of a vitally significant period of American history. As a drama, Lincoln emphasizes a narrative transition from the American founding to the American individual, opening the second chapter in this country’s history: the western.