Lincoln – Film Review


Lincoln reminds us that there have always been troubling times and politics is a dirty business. Politics is about compromises struck by people with violently clashing differences. If there can be no compromise then we have the gridlock of nothingness. People suffer and die outside Washington everyday while inside the dome, maddening brinksmanship takes place. Imagine the country consumed by a civil war that produces nearly six hundred casualties per day and has an active slave trade of millions of men, women and children. Six hundred twenty-five thousand souls lost their lives in the war between the North and the South, fought on the brink of expanding war technology such as ironclads and repeating guns. The art critic Robert Hughes while writing his history of American art, said, “The Civil War was America’s Iliad and its Holocaust as well.” This was Lincoln’s world. Steven Spielberg’s masterly film and Daniel Day-Lewis’ interpretation of Lincoln are spellbinding. In the end it’s about one thing; leadership.

The picture opens with a grinding battle full of complexities and powers raging in pools of mud. Despite the advancement of weaponry, the fighting was still largely hand to hand, which was the main reason for the high casualty rate. It’s late in the year 1864 and President Lincoln has just won a second term. He has set two objectives. Pass the Thirteenth Amendment to end slavery and turn war into peace while preserving the United States as one country. Obviously an over achiever.

Screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) spent five years crafting Lincoln. His inspiration and source was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals. In that work she closely examined Lincoln as a man, a father and a president. Mr. Kushner delivered an exhaustive five hundred page script to Spielberg with a note of apology for the length. It was eventually filtered down to cover only a few months of Lincoln’s life. It’s an amazing piece of writing that evokes Shakespeare for it’s elegance of language and refusal to lower itself to any specific audience. It feels like it was written for the stage and stays true to the story and the challenges of the times. Every actor is given even weight regardless of the role, and aside from the scenes in the chaotic House of Representatives, the actors don’t talk over each other. They speak and listen. Pause and speak again. There is terrific use of silence which draws us even further into the setting. It’s an amazingly quiet film.

Mr. Spielberg gives us another exquisitely crafted effort in a style that started with Schindler’s List and continued in Saving Private Ryan. Realism shot through the lens of drama and compassion. This film was not made by the adult-child Spielberg we enjoyed in E.T. and Indiana Jones, but the serious man who points his camera at history and conjures it to the screen. Spielberg shows us what life is like in the White House but it’s Daniel Day-Lewis who brings us into the mind of Lincoln.

Lincoln WorkingMr. Day-Lewis is beyond superb. He inhabits Lincoln in an almost ghostly manner. A soft voice that demands to be heard and his tall, thin frame draped in blankets and cloaks cuts a significant physical presence. Stovepipe hat worn, held and used as storage for speeches adds to his height. Lincoln didn’t really care about clothing, he wanted to be a man of the people. I was never aware Day-Lewis was playing Lincoln. His performance, surely to be an Oscar winner, is mesmerizing. He shapes a Lincoln that is witty, smart and a seasoned politician who loves to tell rambling stories, driven to solve two of the biggest problems that have ever faced this nation. We see a tortured, torn man who endured much personal pain but was loved by the people in a way not often found in presidential history.

The filmmakers successfully surround Lincoln with a lively group of characters. Sally Field as Mary Todd delivers a tempered performance of the frequently overwrought First Lady, but rises to the occasion when required. She brings us the strong woman behind the man and does not back down from disagreeable politicians despite the fact she frequently finds herself on the emotional brink. David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward reminds Lincoln that what he is trying to do is impossible. That in no way dissuades Lincoln. Strathairn as Seward knows the President intimately, having lost the nomination to Lincoln much to the surprise of many. They constantly challenge each other. Tommy Lee Jones relishes his role as Thaddeus Stevens who is the Ted Kennedy of the day, working an entire career to accomplish one very large thing. Both of these actors bring to life their characters and are the oxygen for the thirteenth amendment. The rest of the performances, and there are lots of them, are all top shelf.

There is much to take in. The filmmakers know this and design everything around simple and subtle. The sets are classic and interesting, but the lighting is reserved for the characters. Inside scenes, particularly the White House, are dark at the frame’s edges to match the mood of the nation. When the camera is outside the mood is divided between civilian and soldier. The Capitol building is bathed in bright sunlight and appears as brilliant marble white. A stark contrast to the scrim draped blue that fogs the screen as Lincoln meanders through a battlefield on horseback littered with dead soldiers. Janusz Kaminski (cinematographer) keeps his camera on straight, smooth lines. If feels more akin to photography than filming, evoking Matthew Brady. No shocking movements or radical palette changes.

“I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done; but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure these votes.” — Abraham Lincoln

The majority of the screen time is spent inside the White House. It’s Lincoln’s home and we see how he lives and interacts with his family. Being president means you will get unexpected visitors from little ones. Spielberg effectively weaves both of Lincoln’s living sons, Tad and Robert, into the story, bringing the father/president Lincoln dynamic into an already complex setting.

Lincoln was a master strategist and tactician, always looking forward to the future. He took very specific actions to set the stage and cause others to reconsider. His voice does the heavy lifting but from time to time he uses touch as an exclamation point. When he wants something he gets in your physical space. Sits on a table, pours you a drink or slaps your shoulders. Lyndon Johnson had that style of physical persuasion. So too did Bill Clinton. Irresistible forces of nature sealing the deal with a clutch of the arm or a double handshake.

The score by John Williams is quiet, like most everything else in the film, except of course for the Congressmen. Mr. Williams recalls, “The dramatic and atmospheric needs of the film required very separate pieces that I realize I’d have to compose anew.” He created a number of different themes to deliver the greatest impact. Outside the film I don’t believe anyone will recognize what he has written, but inside the film, it advances our emotional connection.

John Rawls, an American political philosopher states it best.

“The politician thinks about the next election; the statesman thinks about the next generation.”

The film’s official web site is and is interesting, but a bit of an afterthought. There is however an excellent free iBook available through the iTunes store, Lincoln: Discover the Story. It is full of interesting facts and video interviews of the cast and filmmakers. If you get a chance I highly recommend you visit the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. It’s amazing and suitable for all ages. I grew up in Springfield and thus have a deep connection with Mr. Lincoln. His home is there as well as his grave site. I have visited each many times as well as the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.

Highly recommended.

Photo credits: Dreamworks Pictures – Twentieth Century Fox – Participant Media