Equality may be the most sought after condition in the history of the United States. The term “equality” carries with it many connotations, but in this case, I refer to the idea of being treated in the same way as one’s fellow man under the Constitution. You may not be equal to someone financially, but you at least both share the same rights. Today, the most prominent struggle is the fight for the legalization of gay marriage, a fight which, hopefully, will be won in the coming years. But while such a blatant disregard for human rights still exists (sorry, my politics is showing), it’s important to note that we have come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. Less than 150 years ago, slavery was still common practice in America. It was the fervor of one particularly important man that finally helped America take its first step towards true equality.
Lincoln begins in medias res as the Civil War rages on in the dis-United States. As brother kills brother on the battlefield, our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), sets his sights on a matter he considers more important than winning the war. In the opening scene, Lincoln speaks with soldiers, both black and white, who have spilled and shed blood for America. These men of different color fight side by side, live the same and die the same, but still are not treated the same. Lincoln hopes this circumstance will not last much longer, as his proposed 13th Amendment to the Constitution has been passed by the Senate, and now, he awaits the decision from the House of Representatives.
In the many weeks leading up to the final vote in the House, President Lincoln must deal with a host of pressures and problems that may extinguish his proposal. Aided by (but not always necessarily in cooperation with) his Secretary of State, William Seward (an incredible David Strathairn), Lincoln is faced with a golden opportunity to end the war in a matter of days. Representatives from the South, including Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), have agreed to negotiate a peace that will effectively end the bloodshed of war in the country. But if Lincoln agrees to this peace, he will fail in abolishing slavery. It is at this point that the President must choose whether it’s more important to keep a corrupt country together or to grant liberty to an entire race of people, while keeping the country divided.
At the same time, the President’s son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his fourth role and fourth fine performance of the year), has returned from school dead-set on enlisting to fight for the Union. Lincoln is brought to a breaking point as he tries to talk his son out of it for the sake of the boy’s mother, Mary Todd (Sally Field). Already grief-stricken and mentally deteriorated after the death of another son three years prior, Mary is the center of some of the most powerful scenes in the film. Adding to President Lincoln’s moral dilemma is the knowledge that ending the war would mean keeping Robert safe at home, while moving forward with his attempted Amendment could potentially prolong the war and cost his wife another child.
The severity of the situations present in Lincoln is conveyed by the astonishing ensemble cast. Daniel Day-Lewis is expectedly terrific in the titular role, gratefully not turning Abe Lincoln into a hothead who wins arguments by shouting louder than everyone else. While debates rage between parties in the House of Representatives the way the rival ape clans fought over the watering hole in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Day-Lewis presents the President as decidedly calm. He allows his meaningful words and flawless elocution to convince others, rarely resorting to temperamental flares (not never, but rare). His haggard face tells the story when his lips aren’t telling one (another rare occurrence), and his slow, restrained movements are indicative of a man battered and bruised by a rough political career. While no politicians seem to be able to get under the President’s skin, there is one person who is completely capable of rattling him: Mary Todd. Brilliantly portrayed by Sally Field, Mary is a broken woman who is forced to maintain a cheery façade in her role as First Lady. Field is devastating at times, enthralling throughout, and potentially on her way to an Oscar nomination.
It’s impossible to find a disappointing performance in Lincoln, with every supporting actor doing exceptional work. Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, and James Spader in particular are remarkable, with the latter providing a few laughs as a mustachioed lobbyist. But above all, I was impressed by director Steven Spielberg and his restraint. Much the way I appreciated Day-Lewis not getting carried away as Lincoln, Spielberg avoided becoming overly sentimental and schmaltzy with this material. His last effort, War Horse, was good but deeply manipulative and so sickly sweet it hurt your teeth. There are traces of that in Lincoln but never so much that it becomes an annoying trend. More than anything, audiences may find themselves wearied by John Williams’ typically sweeping scores that are becoming irritatingly redundant and encroach their way into every scene of the film.
Spielberg, working with cinematographer Janusz Kaminsi with whom he frequently collaborates, stages his scenes impressively and doesn’t move the camera unnecessarily. The gangly form of Lincoln isn’t overly exposed to make him appear more powerful than any other man, which would have been an easy exploitation by Spielberg. More often than not, Lincoln is shown seated with his head slumped, at the same level of everyone else in the scene. This makes the President seem not like an enlightened giant of wisdom unequalled by any other, but rather, a simple man who had an idea that anybody else in the world could have had as well.
Perhaps the only issue to be found in Lincoln is the often unwieldy script by Tony Kushner. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright lets his stage background infringe on his writing here, which is bogged down by more dialogue than we really need. We all know Lincoln was a great orator and it is perfectly acceptable to show that, but almost every scene with him involves him giving an extended monologue. In fact, I’m having a hard time remembering any scene in the film that didn’t end with any character giving a speech. All of this dialogue would probably work really well on stage, but here, the words are cumbersome and make it difficult to stay engaged. Not to mention the fact that English was a wildly different language back in 1865, so to have every character speaking in the highest tongue of the time at such capacity makes it difficult for modern audiences to keep up.
We all know how the story ends, so we shouldn’t be shocked by the result, and you can’t lambaste me for divulging spoilers (Spielberg doesn’t change history a la Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds). That being said, Lincoln is one scene too long. There’s a perfect moment to end the film when President Lincoln excuses himself so that he can leave for Ford’s Theater. As his lumbering figure recedes into the background, there was a prime opportunity to fade to black. Instead we are shown another perfunctory, melodramatic scene that sullies an otherwise great conclusion. One gets the feeling the scene was added simply because the filmmakers felt they had to show Lincoln giving the Gettysburg Address.
Excessive dialogue and ending issues aside, Lincoln is a great film that enjoyably chronicles one of the (if not the) most important times in our nation’s history. It may even restore some dignity to the Abe Lincoln brand, after it was shamed by this year’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Heaven knows the man deserves to have his name associated with something better than that.
My Rating: (8/10)