History can sometimes weigh on a film like an albatross around its neck. The importance of getting things right while being entertaining, making it something respectable, and making it broad enough to get an audience to justify the larger budget for period sets can be overwhelming. When the subject matter is the man on the U.S. penny, and his fight to pass one of the most important pieces of legislation in U.S. history, that weight of history could easily turn any film into a dusty textbook. But Steven Spielberg does not make dusty textbooks, and Lincoln is possibly his best addition to Hollywood’s collection of history on film.
At the end of 1865, Abraham Lincoln has won re-election, the Civil War is in its final year, and the President has decided that the time has come to pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. With a trio of proto-lobbyists and the Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), Lincoln and his Secretary of State (David Strathairn) play politics with Congress while continuing to fight the Confederacy.
A film about Abraham Lincoln directed by Spielberg was inevitable. He has been planning it for more than a decade. Scripts and screenwriters have come and gone as the centrepiece of the story shifted from Lincoln’s early days to the Civil War. Finally Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich) was hired to adapt Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, with the focus on Lincoln’s final years. The script that resulted is easily one of the best historical adaptations I’ve seen. It achieves the delicate task of creating dialogue for cultural icons, balancing fact with entertainment, and creating suspense where none exists. Like Apollo 13 or Titanic, there is no mystery about the conclusion, but there is so much drama to be found along the way. History adaptations are interesting for all the details that are not widely known, and unless the audience has studied the source materials, there are plenty of surprises in Lincoln.
In one of Spielberg’s earlier versions he had cast Liam Neeson as the President when Daniel Day-Lewis passed. That production was put aside and Day-Lewis was eventually persuaded to join. It’s good that he did, because the performance he gives is nothing short of astounding. Everything, from his posture to his voice, appears completely natural; he isn’t playing Lincoln, he is Lincoln. It’s a cliché, but it’s true: Day-Lewis completely disappears into this role.
Part of Day-Lewis’ impressive performance comes from his supporting cast. Spielberg is the most powerful director in Hollywood, so he can get anyone he wants. Everywhere in Lincoln there are familiar faces wearing false beards or Gone With The Wind dresses. Sally Field is a standout as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Joseph Gordon Levitt as her son, Robert. James Spader plays a 19th century version of his Boston Legal persona named W. N. Bilbo and Watchmen’s Rorschach, Jackie Earle Haley, plays the Vice-President of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens. The recognizable cast echoes JFK or The Aviator, where modern celebrity is used to make up for the diminished notoriety of the real people. It’s an elegant and old-fashioned strategy to make lesser historical figures relevant to a modern audience. But, among this celebrity cast, Day-Lewis still disappears under Abraham Lincoln’s face, which makes his performance even more amazing.
An important aspect of Lincoln’s power is the cast of antagonists. The democratic leaders, the Confederacy diplomats, and the average white farmers who fear mass murder at the hands of freed slaves are strangely humanized despite their views. A combination of script and performance makes clear their arguments as to why ending slavery is bad. Their logic is broken and their views are obviously wrong, but it is not difficult to understand how and why they hold the views they do. This gives the opposition to the amendment real credibility, which aids the suspense in the voting sequence.
The climax of the film, much like the title moment of The King’s Speech, is played almost verbatim as it would have happened. The roll is called and one by one the congressmen vote; focus jumps around to all the characters in the film, and slowly the tally is taken until the results are announced. It seems odd that something so methodical and bureaucratic could be so exciting, but that is the curious power that this film wields. Spielberg has put together a tremendously balanced film. It is witty, engaging, and never feels too long. Essentially, it’s a 19th century episode of The West Wing. There is a good chance it will win several of its 12 Oscar nominations, and none of those wins would be undeserving.