“Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s magnificent film eleven years in gestation, is worth the wait. The rights to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s magnum opus, Team of Rivals, were purchased by DreamWorks well in advance of its 2005 publication, and a stunning and comprehensive guide to the political ascension of the 16th president it is. That a film could be carved from the intricate web spun from its pages is even more amazing, but Tony Kushner, the remarkable playwright (“Angels in America”) and screenwriter (“Munich”) illustrates that adaptation is an art form unto itself.
Choosing one episode in the political life of Abraham Lincoln out of so very many was, in retrospect, perhaps the only way to approach the task. Using Goodwin’s book for characterizations and the background necessary to understand Lincoln’s personality and approach to governance, Kushner and Spielberg chose Lincoln’s push to pass the Thirteen Amendment to the Constitution. Lincoln, first, last and always a lawyer, knew that his Emancipation Proclamation was a wartime act, essentially taking away the property of rebel factions and might be subject to rescission by the courts once the war ended and the Southern states returned to the jurisdiction of the United States; he could not allow that to happen. The only way to assure the permanent end to slavery (and indentured servitude) would be by Constitutional Amendment, something the Republican-controlled Senate had already passed. The House, controlled by the Democrats, was another story and the amendment had already failed once. Knowing that the war would soon end as the South had run out of money and soldiers, there was an urgency to the task – an urgency underscored by the refusal of the minority party to give way on anything requested by the President (for present day observers, it brings to mind Santayana’s famous saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”; or perhaps better expressed in “The more things change, the more they remain the same”). That this battle would be played out in the last few months of his life makes it all that more dramatic and poignant.
Spielberg has amassed an enormous and enormously talented cast, led by the stunning performance of Daniel Day Lewis who brings a complex and complicated man to life. Lincoln, a famous raconteur, could also be mercurial, cagey almost to the point of duplicity, a tender-hearted family man, a loyal friend, a talented wartime strategist who possessed a sharp intelligence coupled with an unmatched grass-roots common sense. Lewis communicates all of that and more with his flat Illinois intonation, shining eyes and almost stooped stride. He is mesmerizing.
David Strathairn as Secretary of State Seward, perhaps Lincoln’s closest advisor, is at once self-important and self-effacing. Sally Field imbues Mary Lincoln with warmth and a raw edge; this is not the portrait of a mentally ill woman as she has often been (wrongfully) played, but one who cares deeply for her husband’s legacy but still grieves and blames herself (and him) for the son she lost. Field captures Mary’s warmth, fear, tenacity and defensiveness for Mary Lincoln was, in the end, enigmatic.
Also of note are the triumvirate of shady characters employed sub rosa to beg, cajole, steal or pay for votes of Democrats in the fight to pass the amendment, led by James Spader as the bloated, crude and essentially lawless W.N. Bilbo, followed closely by his compatriots played by John Hawkes as Robert Latham and Tim Blake Nelson as Richard Schell. Joseph Gordon Levitt as Robert Lincoln, the eldest son, conveys the confusion and resentment of one who longs for a closer relationship with a father he admires but has been kept distant.
So many familiar faces fill the screen, adding dimension to the urgency of the task at hand. Evil is personified in the form of Democrats George Pendleton (Peter McRobbie) and Fernando Wood (Lee Pace) leading the opposition to the amendment and using any means necessary to keep a rein on the other representatives, two of whom are played convincingly by Walter Goggins and Michael Stuhlbarg. In small but critical roles you will also see Hal Holbrook, Julie White, Jackie Earle Haley, Bruce McGill, Dakin Matthews, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Gloria Reuben, and S. Epatha Merkenson among many many others.
Last, but certainly not least, Tommy Lee Jones has a well-deserved and well-earned star turn as Thaddeus Stephens, a Republican abolitionist and firebrand in the House who must exercise a self-restraint foreign to his nature in order help pass the amendment. He was pure pleasure in a bad wig and a dark scowl.
Spielberg’s creative team has worked together on many films and there would seem to be a second sense in their work for him. The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski was sumptuous, light and dark simultaneously adding to the palpable despair and dawning hope. It is inconceivable to imagine anyone else with a better eye. Rick Carter’s production design was the perfect partnership with the cinematography enhancing the depth of feeling for the era and events. Joanna Johnston’s costumes were period-perfect and of course John Williams created the score.
Spielberg’s film is clear-eyed and almost entirely devoid of maudlin sentimentality. Had he ended the film on Lincoln’s back (a beautifully framed shot in a halo of light) as he left his cabinet meeting for the theater, it would have been essentially perfect. There was no need to play out his final moments and even more unfortunate, Spielberg was unable to resist the opportunity to remind his audience of Lincoln’s most famous oration on emancipation, tacking on an anti-climactic coda that allowed a release from the tension, sadness and loss that was felt when watching him leave for his date with death.