There’s a welcome lack of irony and distance in Lincoln that perhaps only Steven Spielberg could’ve created. Time and again he’s circled back in his films to moments of oppression and release, of bondage and freedom, but he does so with a keen ability to balance mourning with hope. He’s a passionate and gifted filmmaker precisely to the degree he’s able to strip away the artifice from a narrative and present the stark emotions and real people underneath. Is it any wonder that, while his fantasies have dealt with fictional characters, his best dramas have sought to bring history back to life? The stunning achievement of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, staring Nazism in the face. The return to the empty-souled bargains that built America in Amistad and The Color Purple. The beleaguered look at that “night already devoid of stars” in Munich. He’s constantly working toward a place of sorrow and honor, of remembering the great evils men can visit upon each other shortly before they demonstrate their best intentions.
As such, Lincoln is powerful yet intimate, the kind of brutal, yearning look at mankind’s dueling desire to love and conquer our neighbors that’s Spielberg’s specialty. It’s frank about the ugly ways of human nature, political and otherwise, but it’s equally tender about the people that make up that world, and about the relationships that keep them in it. The script from Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Munich) focuses mainly on the weeks in January 1865 leading to the passage of the 13th Amendment and the abolition of slavery, but it does so largely through conversations designed as much to let their participants use rhetoric to grapple with big ideas as they are to actually push the story forward. There’s the fraught marriage between Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) and wife Mary Todd (Sally Field), haunted by the ghost of one dead son and the prospect of losing another to war. There’s the push and pull between Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), who each want a peaceful end to the Civil War but disagree about the role abolition can play in such a peace. There are Lincoln’s sessions with his cabinet as he battles them over the cost of abolition to the future of the Union. And there are the wars of words in the House of Representatives, particularly the eloquently toxic sparring between Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a Republican representative from Pennsylvania championing freedom for all men, and Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), a Democratic representative from New York who argues against equality. Spielberg keeps the story moving by shifting from one chamber piece to the next, letting the tension of the warring political factions and the looming amendment deadline ratchet the tension.
It’s a testament to Spielberg’s control and execution that, almost 150 years after the fact, he can still imbue the debate over and passage of the amendment with anxiety and dread, as if we stand to lose it all over again. He’s focused in earlier films on these moments in which humanity seemed to stand on a precipice, unsure of what it might do to itself, and it’s clear that these moments and the way they’re handled are what drive him as a filmmaker. There are so many small moments that do so much, like when a politician tells Lincoln that the 13th Amendment is a “rash and dangerous” one shortly before he takes a cup of tea proffered by black hands. We never see the woman’s face — we don’t see much more than a tight shot of her hands and torso as she walks to and quickly away from the seated man — but we know all we need about her role in that world and the way the speaker could so passionately denounce freedom for members of a race while casually being served by one of them. This is masterful work.
Spielberg’s blessed with an amazing cast, too. Day-Lewis is almost predictably fantastic as the beleaguered 16th president, a man physically weighed down by the knowledge of his place in history. He’s slow to anger but resolved to see his appointed task through, and as the film progresses, Day-Lewis seems to move slower and slower, as if Lincoln himself were withdrawing from the world after having helped his country change irrevocably for the better. Jones is an absolute powerhouse, too, believably torn between knowing what he believes is right and knowing what portion of those beliefs he can voice in the Senate chamber without risking political death or the end of the amendment. Field and Day-Lewis have some electric scenes together, shouting at each other and clawing at their marriage, both unable to come to grips with the losses they’ve suffered and their failure as partners. Lincoln here is constantly prepared to defend his faith in abolition to any who will listen, but he’s just as unable to give voice to the love he feels for those closest to him. When his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) insists on joining the Union ranks, Lincoln tries to bully him out of it, and it’s not until Robert’s stormed off that Lincoln whispers to himself, “I can’t lose you.” Spielberg paints a man of horrible, damning contrasts, pouring everything he has into his country with nothing left for anyone else.
Perhaps the greatest thing about the film is the way Spielberg deftly weaves together history and myth to comment on the way we make the world in our image. When, in the film’s final moments, Lincoln’s cabinet is gathered around his deathbed, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) says, “He belongs to the ages now.” It’s a powerful moment and one that’s been enshrined in history lessons for generations, yet there’s been debate about whether Stanton actually said “ages” or “angels,” not to mention dueling accounts over some of Lincoln’s actual statements. Similarly, when Lincoln is shot, the film isn’t with him but with his youngest son, Tad (Gulliver McGrath), who’s at a different theater for the evening and whose shattered wails at the news of his father’s death stand in for the suffering of an aggrieved nation. For Spielberg, the point isn’t always to accurately capture what happened in this dark and awful hour in our collective past, but to juxtapose the myths with equally stunning fact. These small scenes might not have happened this way, or at all, but the struggles to outlaw slavery were terribly real. Abraham Lincoln is a giant in American history and remembered here and everywhere for some things that might not have happened, but he’s also rightly honored for guiding a fragile nation through a period of strife that dwarfs anything we can imagine unfolding today. Lincoln is a testament to the way myth and fact marry to make legend, and Spielberg chronicles the courtship in beautiful and unforgettable ways.
As with Spielberg’s other films about our uncomfortable history, he’s able to show how what once passed as victories can feel like something less when we look back. When Stevens stands up for abolition, his opponents warn their fellow representatives of the slippery slope they’re on, scaring them into submission with tales of women being allowed to vote and black citizens being elected to office. Such rhetoric can seem laughable now, or at least lamentable, but Spielberg never paints the men making the arguments as buffoons. They aren’t cartoon villains: they’re simply people who believe, deep down, in what they’re saying. By humanizing them, by keeping the action firmly rooted in the real, Spielberg turns any potential judgment back onto us. We look back on these talks and hang our heads, but what will our descendants think of us in a century? When Lincoln speaks of how abolition will benefit not only those currently in bondage but the “unborn millions to come,” it’s impossible not to hear Itzhak Stern telling Oskar Schindler that “whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” Abolition was a step, not a goal, and Lincoln is a reminder of how far we’ve come even as we have so far to go. Of how we can destroy ourselves, and how we can be made new again.