When I heard that Dreamworks movies would be distributed by the Walt Disney Studios, I immediately thought of how terrific it would be if Disney was able to distribute “Lincoln,” the movie Spielberg had been working on since 2001. If you’ve read even the shortest biography of Walt Disney you know that he admired Lincoln as our nation’s finest president. When Walt chose the first human being to be represented by an audio-animatronic, it was Lincoln who would once again wow the masses with his oratory. He has his own attraction at Disneyland and is featured in Walt Disney World’s Hall of Presidents.
Lincoln has not be neglected by films either. Among the many times he’s appeared in the theaters, Henry Fonda played the 16th president in “Young Mr. Lincoln” in a film by John Ford and Raymond Massey played him twice, once in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” and once in “How the West was Won.” Hal Holbrook, one of my favorite actors, won an emmy for his 1976 portrayal of Lincoln in an acclaimed TV special. (Holbrook reprised the role in the mid 80’s TV mini-series “North & South”).
Holbrook also has a role in Spielberg’s Lincoln, but it’s not the President. That role is filled impressively by Daniel Day-Lewis who took over from Liam Neeson who declared himself too old. Day-Lewis reportedly took a year to become Lincoln as part of his preparation for the role and would periodically text his co-actors in the voice of Lincoln as they prepared for the film. This all pays off when Day-Lewis disappears from the screen and you are watching Honest Abe work his way through these tumultuous moments in history. Day-Lewis’s ability to become the person he is portraying will no doubt earn him another academy award nomination and likely a third gold statue when all the votes are in.
Other actors were as terrific as Day-Lewis. Sally Field, who fought for a screen test as Mary Todd Lincoln then put on 25 pounds to become Lincoln’s ‘Molly’ (Lincoln addressed his wife as Mom or Molly and she addressed him as Mr Lincoln), owned every scene she was in. Field also gets to help reposition Mary Todd less as a crazy first lady, but as one in intense mourning for the loss of her second son, but very much an important player in Washington politics.
Tommy Lee Jones, cast as abolitionist congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, was wickedly good as the witty and verbally casuistic ultimate playmaker on Capital hill. The previously mentioned Hal Holbrook played power broker Francis Preston Blair (whose ‘Blair House’ is still known as the 2nd White House in DC). In fact, you can go right down the list of supporting cast and not find a single disappointment. The only problem I had with the cast was James Spader as the party operative Bilboe and not because Spader was bad, he was amazing, but because the audience laughed when they recognized the obvious typecasting of him in the role of agitator and it took me out of the film for a moment.
Also impressive was the light touch with which Spielberg chose to direct the film. Actors were left to work with Tony Kushner’s great script (the dialog in this film is magnificent) and do what they do best. Janusz Kamiński was allowed to work his craft as cinematographer swathing the movie in gritty earthen tones. John Williams music was also used sparingly, but when there, added just the right emotional tones.
The gas-light glow of the lighting used in the 1860s sometimes drifted into the magical and the use of mirrors was symbolic of Lincoln’s deep reflection. Without great costuming you would never believe you were watching history come to life, and whomever did designed the plethora of beards for all the men in the film should get their own special academy award. I’m not kidding.
The movie is bookended in two ways. First by violence. The film opens on a bloody battle between southern rebels and a union regiment of black soldiers. Near the end of the film Lincoln goes to meet General Grant after the bloody battle at Petersberg, VA (in one of a few scenes that make the film in appropriate for children). Lincoln makes the trip himself as a reminder of the cost of war and that the quest for peace is worth whatever it takes.
The second set of bookends is by two of Lincoln’s most famous speeches. Kushner uses some clever scriptwriting to introduce the Gettysburg Address even though that speech was made much earlier in the war. The movie codas on Lincoln’s 2nd inaugural speech. Arguably two of the greatest speeches ever from the great orator. Disney fans will recognize many of the lines from the Hall of Presidents and Great Moments with Mr Lincoln that were taken from the 2nd inaugural speech.
There is no buggy chase nor a focus on the conspiracy to assassinate the President to add drama (that is happening elsewhere). The machinations involved to push through the adoption of the 13th amendment and end the civil war lend enough historical drama to keep one’s attention. When the political drama drags, the human emotion brought by Day-Lewis, Fields, Lee and others more than fills up the space.
The great unifier was also the great manipulator of his political opponents and the film does not shy away from his methods. Lincoln was known for how he always had a story or anecdote to help get his point across. There is a lot of this in the movie. Even when Lincoln is not making a point, he’s using the image people have of him as a folksy outsider to move them from their position instead. There was also a fair amount of humor from Lincoln, but the biggest laughs came from Thaddeus Stevens’ verbal lashings of his opponents.
The crux of the film focuses on how democracy worked in the time of Lincoln. Remove the civil war and other issues and it’s a movie about a president trying to get a bill through congress. As such, there are some parallels that can be drawn directly to our current polarized politics. The movie is, of course, about a lot more than that. Spielberg deals with that bigger issues by letting them soak in sideways from the narrative. It was nice to have a movie that respected the audience’s ability to figure things out on their own.
By focusing on the adoption of the 13th amendment, “Lincoln” very powerfully takes on America’s original sin – slavery. It’s important that as a nation, we remember how we got out of that tainted history, how we are still mired in slavery’s wake, and why the fight for civil rights / human rights around the globe remains the crucial fight of today. When you add it all up, “Lincoln” is a worthy entry into the pantheon of films that transcend the medium to inspire and remind us of how fragile this thing is we call Democracy.
Lincoln is open in limited cities right now and will open for wide release on Friday.