About halfway through Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln discusses the principles of Euclid with two young officers manning the telegraph room while on a late night jaunt. Before leaving he gives both a kindly pat on the shoulder; a simple gesture displaying Lincoln's compassion and world weariness - therein lying the heart of the film. We see Lincoln thinking, rationalizing, cajoling, joking, and bearing the world on his shoulders as the Civil War ends. Spielberg's Lincoln succeeds what all the best historical films often fail: it balances individual moments while capturing the grand sweep of history.
Tony Kushner's screenplay covers the final four months of Lincoln's presidency. Lincoln stood at the height of his powers. By 1865, with the defeat of the Confederacy inevitable, Lincoln was determined to define the war's legacy as one of freedom and emancipation, ideas enunciated in the Gettysburg Address. Other crucial questions lingered: What would be the legal status of freed slaves? How to incorporate the southern states back into the union? There's something endlessly compelling about the course of wars and how leaders and peoples react to them. Nothing is more dramatic. But when it comes to the aftermath things get messier and often less interesting. Americans pride themselves on remembering the Civil War and the endless list of bloody battles. That's fine. Reconstruction is another story. The years after the war were replete with complicated politics, missed opportunities, tragedy, and few triumphs. Overall, politics took on a more corrupt and ignoble course. In that vein, the film has a strong undercurrent of tragedy.
Daniel Day Lewis once again carries the film in a way few actors do these days. Lewis conveys Lincoln's wisdom, whimsical, and tragic nature. As a reader of Lincoln biographies, I've always had a fascination with Lincoln's mystical power to connect with individuals and people on a personal basis, and at the same time appear distant, otherworldly. In Janusz Kaminski's cinematography Lincoln appears ghostly with a gentle, white light trailing him symbolizing in Lincoln's words the "mystic cords of memory."
Although surrounded by an all star cast, the film tends to lag when Daniel Day Lewis is absent. Sally Field as Mary Todd is sympathetic as a much maligned first lady. At times, Lincoln has a Hall of presidents type feel, with bombastic debates in the congress with actors in their 19th century garb. Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens combines grouchiness with idealism. Prominent actors appear in many roles, but one gets the sense they were just happy to be part of the project.
Lincoln's been a subject of American cinema since its inception. From D.W. Griffith's civil war epic, Birth of a Nation to Ken Burn's documentary, The Civil War, he's a presence. My personal favorites are Young Mr. Lincoln starring Henry Fonda (1939) and Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). Henry Fonda played Lincoln like as a Christlike folk hero, while Raymond Massey played him as a prophetic statesman. Elements of these Lincolns appear in Lewis's interpretation. What separates Spielberg's film is its fascination with political process, namely, passing the 13th amendment to abolish slavery. The decision to focus on the machinations of politics place Lincoln in the company of thoughtful historical epics in the vein of A Man for all Seasons, which in I think will serve the film well in the long term because both ennoble their subjects without the hero worship.