I have to hand it to Spielberg. At least he stayed away from grandiose productions this time. And, to his credit, he managed to steer clear of the usual pitfalls: the temptation of that eye-watering Messianism so often associated with U.S historical events, flamboyant speeches about democracy and world-saving feats.
The movie deals with abolitionism. More precisely, it depicts Lincoln’s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibiting slavery, and the underlying political wrangling to get the necessary votes at the beginning of his second term in office. The South is exhausted, the bloody American Civil War – which has already cost 600,000 lives – is drawing towards an imminent end. Everyone is against his move. Why now? We gradually find out. We gradually get an inkling of his astute legal and political thinking. Most of this film happens in the somewhat shady and modest interiors of the White House, most of it happens in Lincoln’s office, between his papers, his war maps and his conscience. This tall bearded fellow who likes to make a point by telling a story, who has had little formal education but ponders Euclid’s laws with his own telecommunication engineers (boys in their 20s awed by his presence) in a White House basement floor late at night. This father of the nation, reelected with crushing majority, with his self-control and his stature. Stature, above all. Literally. But figuratively too. This Lincoln who acts more like a grandfather actually, including to his own youngest son. This wise aging man, this preoccupied benefactor who remains calm in the face of death, in face of a frantic wife tormented by the fear of losing yet another son, in face of a Negro’s ranting and… well, just about everything, really.
I was excited about the movie coming out of the theater last night. A large part of that has worn off in the meantime. Maybe due to the fact that it isn’t that plausible, that arresting after all. Maybe because we already know how it’s going to turn out, so it’s really hard to accumulate dramatic tension and maintain it – after all, this isn’t fiction. As soon as the emotion fades away, what you are left with is a fabulous Daniel Day Lewis (I love this actor and have been in love with him since “Nine”), and an equally great Tommy Lee Jones, rough around the edges, smart and cerebral as usual, the perfect supporting actor. Sally Field also makes a great part as Mrs. Lincoln, although somehow I was left wanting more, some more background, or some more follow-up. I also liked his Secretary of State and – perhaps most of all – the fat, beer-drinking, crab-smashing, cigar-smoking “lobbyist” who drops a scintillating and hilarious “Oh, fuck!” when Lincoln himself enters the room. 🙂 Great touch of commercial genius from Spielberg, using his utterances to counterbalance all those pompous, adjective-laden, Founding-Fathers-type phrases. Most of the other actors, however, were pretty lackluster and completely depth-free. Perhaps there wasn’t enough time for more shades of gray, for more foraging into psychological and political dilemmas. Occasionally, even the not-so-ethical political give and take seems endearingly benign compared to modern-day political thrillers.
But enough. This film is really about Lincoln. There is just enough background, tension and dynamism to profile him and pay him an unapologetic homage. The man, the conscience, the stories. And boy, can the guy tell stories. To the point of exasperation. Members of his cabinet flip out as soon as they sense another one coming. And boy, can the guy drag his feet. Except about freeing slaves. But for me personally, it was precisely these stories, this persuasion through parables and exemplification, and his ridiculous feet which were the real treats. They brought the character to life as a real person.
Go see this movie. If you miss it, you might never find out why George Washington’s portrait is so appropriate in a British toilet.