After the election on Tuesday, which brought us 4 historic gay rights ballot victories, the first openly gay Senator and the most women in the Senate ever, it was a no-brainer to spend Friday night watching Spielberg’s movie about Abraham Lincoln and his people’s fight to eke together a coalition to pass the 13th amendment to the Constitution, ending 400 years of slavery. Also, SKYFALL was sold out.
It’s true, I tried to see SKYFALL, but it was actually kind of exciting to have to switch to plan B. I’ll watch any Spielberg picture, and the history ones usually I’m a little slower to run out and see, but Abraham Lincoln is really interesting to me, so this is different. And I’d like to see James Bond get a bunch of racist assholes to agree to end slavery before the Civil War ends and takes away their biggest incentive to get it done. I don’t think he could do it. Also Lincoln’s taller.
As much as I enjoyed ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, I don’t mind them doing this BATMAN BEGINS style stripped-down-and-more-grounded-in-reality franchise reboot. You can put different spins on it ’cause there’s just so many aspects to the property that the fans love.
It covers a different period of Lincoln’s life, and I don’t just mean that it leaves out the vampires. Like some of the best biopictures it doesn’t try to skim through his whole life. It doesn’t show him as a kid writing on a shovel and chopping wood and wrestling and shit. Save that for the prequels. Most of the movie takes place in January 1865, the month leading up to the deadline he’s set himself for passing the 13th amendment. So it uses a small part of his life as a representative of the whole, kind of like how CAPOTE sticks to the writing of In Cold Blood or INVICTUS sticks to Mandela trying to unite the country through that one rugby game or BLADE just deals with his battle with Deacon Frost. These fun-sized life stories can tell us more about the person’s talents, their motivations, their human flaws, their historic importance and what not than a surface-level run through of major milestones from cradle to grave.
I’ve mentioned before my love for the book Manhunt and how it takes this famous event in American history (in that case John Wilkes Booth’s assassination conspiracy and attempted escape) but shows me how little I actually knew about it and how many fascinating aspects there are to it. Same thing here, there’s way more drama than I knew or thought about. Lincoln’s cabinet, most notably Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), think he’s crazy for even trying to find enough votes to build a 2/3 majority and pass the amendment. The “Radical Republican” abolitionists don’t all agree on how to achieve this abolition. Plenty of more moderate Republicans are against slavery, but don’t believe in equality. Many fear “the Negro vote,” or a deluge of former slaves coming up north. Many only want to end slavery because they think it will end the war.
As Lincoln explains in one of the many standout monologue scenes, he’s confident that the war will end soon and fears that his use of war powers for the Emancipation Proclamation may not have been legal or hold up in peace time. He’s carrying this horrific war on his back but he has to make sure it doesn’t end before he’s able to stop this other even greater crime.
But before all that, in a great opening scene, they introduce us to Lincoln sitting outside one night talking to soldiers. We learn about him by what people say to him. There’s a great dynamic between the two black soldiers (one confronts him about a list of racial inequalities, the other seems embarrassed) and then two white ones (one seems more starstruck and emotional than the other, both try to recite the Gettysburg Address). We don’t see Lincoln give the address, because that was earlier, so instead we get to hear people talk about it. It’s legendary.
Spielberg also humanizes Lincoln in subtle ways, like by showing how cold it is all the time. He’s often hunched over, bundled up in blankets or goofy looking winter coats. He tries to be a sensitive and loving father and husband, but knows he has to keep family moments brief to step away and deal with the god damn Civil War. Sorry, Robert (Joseph Gordon Levitt, no Bruce Willis nose), dad only has time to shake your hand and welcome you home real quick. Suck it up.
Little brother Tad (Gulliver McGrath) likes to sneak a look at photos of slaves. A morbid fascination, a curiosity about this crazy thing that goes on in this world, about these people he’s never met whose freedom his dad will give his life for. Dad tells him it’ll give him nightmares. It’s like a scary movie.
This Lincoln tends to answer questions with long, at first unrelated stories. I know at least one of them is a joke that he really told according to Doris Kearns Goodwin (this is based on part of her book Team of Rivals). So I don’t know how much of that is the real Lincoln and how much is playwright-turned-screenwriter Tony Kushner showing off. They’re good stories, but in one scene a guy can’t stand to listen to another god damn story and storms out of the room in protest. Abe seems oblivious and tells the story anyway.
Holy shit, Daniel Day-Lewis! For years I was excited for Liam Neeson to play Lincoln in this, and I wish I could know what that would’ve been like, but I can’t imagine he would’ve been this good. This Lincoln seems so kind and thoughtful, eloquent but soft spoken, able to be a little playful even when everybody else is ready to shit their pants over these problems he faces. It’s weird to feel this way about a historical drama, but I kinda want to keep watching the movie just to be around this guy.
It’s a complete transformation – how is this the same actor from THERE WILL BE BLOOD? The only thing the performances have in common is greatness. And the makeup is so good that there were maybe 3 or 4 moments in the movie where I caught his eyes at a certain angle or something and remembered oh yeah, that’s what Daniel Day-Lewis looks like under that. 99% of the time he just looks like Lincoln. And if IMDb’s right he’s only 6′ 1 1/2″ tall, not a giant, so they must’ve used Hobbitvision or something ’cause he convincingly towers over everybody.
Everybody else is great too, and when I say “everybody else” I mean all of the other actors that there are, because they’re all in this. Everybody but I think Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender. The rest of ’em are in here and can all be proud. It was fun to play a game of “name the actor I didn’t know was gonna be in this.” I got James Spader, John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, the guy from A SIMPLE MAN, Walton Goggins (!), Lukas Haas, and the kid from CHRONICLE. I do have to subtract two points though for incorrectly identifying Bruce McGill as an aging Christopher McDonald.
Kushner is famous for the play Angels In America, but to me he’s the guy who wrote MUNICH. Obviously this is less of a genre movie than that one, but it’s another one that wrestles with big ideas in the middle of a surprisingly entertaining story. In this one it’s not because it’s a badass thriller, but because it’s surprisingly funny. The character of Thaddeus Stevens gets alot of the laughs with all his legislative shit-talking, with second place probly going to James Spader as a sleazy individual released from jail to help Lincoln get the votes.
That’s another interesting part: Honest Abe is willing to play a little dirty for this. He’s dealing with idiots who he’s willing to trick and manipulate if necessary. It might be a moral quandary if it wasn’t GOD DAMN SLAVERY he was up against.
Some people probly expect this to be corny Oscar bait type shit, especially being Spielberg’s next movie after WAR HORSE, but it’s not like that. I can only think of one line that made me think, “Well, that might be a little much.” One scene that could easily come off as pandering to modern sensibilities – when the Congressmen all lose their shit about the concept of women some day having the right to vote – works as a really powerful and darkly humorous reminder of how fuckin stupid we’re gonna look to our descendants as society continues its eternal journey down the path of liberty and equality.
Obviously Spielberg and Kushner make Lincoln out to be a great man and hugely important to American history, but it does this by demonstrating his political genius in action. Not as much highfalutin music and heroic camera angles as you’d expect, and no scenery chewing by the president. But he definitely gets to show off in many long take monologue scenes. The camera work is very subdued, none of the showboating moves I enjoy. Spielberg keeps it simple and intimate, I guess to contrast with the epic subject matter. (Of course Janusz Kaminski [SCHINDLER’S LIST, COOL AS ICE] is the director of photographing, so it looks beautiful.
There’s definitely some similarities with AMISTAD. Both movies are about white politicians trying their damndest to cleverly trick the system into allowing some justice for black slaves. These are the good guys, but they’re kinda clueless in some ways. In AMISTAD there’s this deeply uncomfortable feeling as the Africans in question are sitting in the court room the whole time as the white people argue over their fate. LINCOLN makes a point of showing the gallery filled with blacks as the whites decide things. In one of the most unsettling moments, Stevens has to eat shit and claim not to believe in racial equality in order to convince the other assholes to go along with “equality under the law only.” He keeps looking up into the balcony, and it pains him. Mary Todd (Sally Field) applauds the political victory while her black friend (Gloria Reuben) runs out of the room in disgust.
By the way, don’t be intimidated, this is a 2 1/2 hour movie, but that’s only 6 minutes longer than SKYFALL. I know it’s not every day you’re gonna feel in the mood to watch a movie about civil war era political strategies, but whenever you do this is the movie to watch.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.