Execution of a Proclamation, by Scott Nye
What a pleasure Lincoln is, so abundant in greatness and in such short supply of the mediocrity to which cinema so often succumbs. Though it takes seriously the issues of the time it depicts, it does not congratulate itself on correcting the past, but rather shows the complexity of moral law. And rather than its heavy-handedness, it is the lightness with which it carries its leaden feet that it can be most immediately appreciated. Look not merely on the awards it may one day receive, but on the film before you, a human, taught procedural about the cost of justice.
Though ostensibly a biopic, Lincoln only focuses on the life of Abraham Lincoln during the first few months of 1865, leading up to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, banning slavery in the United States. In many ways, it’s The West Wing of the Civil War. There are fairly long passages in which Lincoln doesn’t play a role, allowing some of the nuts-and-bolts of politicking to be done by members of his cabinet and allies in Congress. We get a very real, palpable sense of the political climate at the time, one in which much of the ground was still being laid. Regular citizens could approach the president freely and expect at least a temporary audience, and chambers of law had all the rabble-rousing of a fraternity meeting.
Director Steven Spielberg, never one to be low on sentiment, takes easily to the ideological reasons for abolishing slavery, which were indeed alive at the time, but Tony Kushner’s screenplay dictates that this be more process than tenderness. More than this just being about a crusade against racism, they take the time to spell out the economic and social issues at play. The South wasn’t fighting the Civil War purely because they hated black people; their entire economy was threatened. Moreover, there existed concern among even those sympathetic to abolition that, upon true emancipation (Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation was viewed as a wartime measure), black people simply wouldn’t have a place in the country. Setting aside the concerns of the present for a better tomorrow – we’re immediately reminded of how long it took for true legal equality to set in – is never an easy task, but one Lincoln and his team rise to.
Kushner links those concerns together, along with Mary-Todd Lincoln’s (Sally Field) desire for their eldest son, Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to not go to war (an amendment abolishing slavery would also end the war, as it would decisively answer the question for which they were fighting), in such an expert way, never sacrificing the historical political detail of the day to make things more audience friendly. His dialogue is lush, theatrical, and at odds with our ideas of “conversation” but all the better for it. These are learned people clashing together about historic issues; all the better their language suits their subject. And when he does run full force into the lofty speeches seen in the film’s advertising, he’s earned it. Spielberg keeps things lively, moving his performers in such a way as to make perfectly clear the heft of the arguments, even as the minutia may be, from time to time, lost. He allows his performers space in which to work, cutting to accommodate them, not simply to ensure ample coverage. His attentiveness and respect for the actors is self-evident, none more so than Day-Lewis.
It almost goes without saying that Day-Lewis gives a standout performance in a film, but for as good as everyone is here (and they are), the screen simply lights up whenever he graces it with his presence. Building a legend from a historical figure is a dicey proposition, but Day-Lewis plays both to the man and the myth. His vocal choice underlines adds a frailty to Lincoln’s undeniable presence, reminding us that this was a real fight for a leader who, at the time, was so controversial his election alone sparked the Civil War. Yet he owns the room, every time. Day-Lewis has such total command over his physicality, striking iconic, defiant poses even as, from a character perspective, he is merely standing. The calmness with which he speaks illustrates not only the certitude of his positions, and willingness to hear out the opposition, but also the charge that is leveled early on against Lincoln, that he works too slowly, too cautiously. Day-Lewis plays Lincoln as very aware that he is on, as he says, “the world’s stage,” understanding perhaps too well the immense power he wields and how delicately this amendment in particular is.
The machinations by which they eventually secure the needed votes is never less than fascinating, ranging from private meetings with Lincoln himself to simply sending a road team of lobbyists (the great threesome of James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson), illustrating that the business of politics was always a business, however ideological the legislation. It really cannot be overstated how fun the film often is, what a joy it is to see these great actors tear into blocks of dialogue, often in sharp conflict with one another. For those who seek entertainment in ways beyond action and comedy (though there’s a fair amount of the latter here), this is quite often the most spectacular cinema around.
More than that, I’ll be damned if it isn’t inspirational, showing how the rusted machinations of democracy can be leveraged towards good. So often we’re overwhelmed by loopholes being exploited merely for personal, temporary gain, so to see Lincoln utilize “lawyer speak” to buy himself a bit of much-needed time, or for Stevens to subvert his larger position for what the shortsighted might see as just another piece of legislation, well, its charm never wears off. It’s something of a love letter to government, reminding us that no matter how frustrating the slow processes can be, there are some things only it can achieve.
In John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, the future president is purposefully posited as a legend, gruff but generous and larger-than-life in all respects. Spielberg is still indulging in mythmaking here – the opponents to the amendment are often hilariously despicable (utilizing spittoons on the House floor, being played by Jackie Earle Haley, etc.) – and, I would say, rightfully so, but by treating Lincoln as a man as often as a leader, it makes the myth all the more powerful. This is cemented in Kushner’s screenplay, one of the few Spielberg scripts that allows for unresolved issues by the time of Lincoln’s inevitable assassination, work left to be done with the nation, but more prominently at home. He may be widely believed to be the greatest president, but that needn’t mean he was the greatest man, and his strained relationship with his eldest son and wife bear that out.
Far from being self-congratulatory Oscar bait, Lincoln is real Americana cinema, born from the folk tales and fiery spirit that built, and rebuilt, the nation. It straps us down to tell us a tale that, ultimately, lifts us up, and is one of the purest pleasures the national cinema has produced all year. I cannot wait to see it again.