by Anthony Lane
The New YorkerNOVEMBER 19, 2012
“Lincoln” tells an honest tale of Abe. For most of the movie, we join the sixteenth President (Daniel Day-Lewis) in early 1865, as he seeks to wrestle the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution through the House of Representatives. The Senate passed the amendment, outlawing slavery and involuntary servitude, in April, 1864. Now comes a rougher task, with obstacles deployed on every flank. The problem is not the opposition—Democrats such as Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), a former mayor of New York, who wanted the city to secede from the Union and reap a continuing profit from its cotton trade with the Confederacy. The problem is fellow-Republicans, notably Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), whose perpetual head of abolitionist steam is enough to blow his wig off. He believes in racial equality in the eyes of God, not merely, as the amendment suggests, before the law. How can so fervid a figure be reined in?
“Lincoln,” written by Tony Kushner, directed by Steven Spielberg, and derived in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” is a curious beast. The title suggests a monolith, as if going to this movie were tantamount to visiting Mt. Rushmore, and the running time, of two and a half hours, prepares you for an epic. Yet the film is a cramped and ornery affair, with Spielberg going into lockdown mode even more thoroughly than he did in “The Terminal.” As befits a chamber piece, we pass from one chamber to the next: from the crowded floor of the House to the Lincolns’ bedroom, a hospital ward, and the study where Stevens likes to browbeat lesser men. Then, there is the carriage with curtained windows, in which a Southern delegation, led by Alexander Stephens (Jackie Earle Haley), Vice-President of the Confederate States, travels north in secret (and in vain), to discuss a peace deal—peace being the first thing that Lincoln prays for and the last thing he needs right now, before the amendment is passed.
Stephens was a ferrety fellow, often in poor health, and Haley is an alarmingly close match. Almost all the actors in “Lincoln” map neatly onto their characters, aside from Hal Holbrook, who looks too cushioned and comfortable for the role of Francis Preston Blair, the architect of the failed peace agreement, and a dead ringer for Nosferatu. Still, it’s only proper that the guy who played Deep Throat should show up, because “Lincoln” devotes itself to shenanigans in smoke-filled rooms, with most of the smoke emerging from the cigar of Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn), whose close, confiding affection for Lincoln is well caught. No one is happier in this fug than Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s cinematographer, who veils events in such a rarefied and sifted haze that they seem already poised halfway to myth. Just look at the President, haloed and framed against a window, in semi-silhouette, as he sits in a rocking chair reading to his young son Tad (Gulliver McGrath). They could be in a picture book themselves.
Because of scenes like that, “Lincoln” becomes a fight. There is physical conflict, but it seems perfunctory: first, a murderous opening scrap between black and Confederate regiments, invested by Kaminski with the staccato desperation that he brought to “Saving Private Ryan,” and then, much later, a corpse-littered battlescape. The true tussle of the movie, however, is between the Spielberg who, like a cinematic Sandburg, is drawn aloft toward legend—hardly an uncommon impulse when dealing with Lincoln—and the Spielberg who is tugged down by Kushner’s intricate screenplay toward documentary grit. You can never tell which of the two tendencies, the visionary or the revisionist, will come out on top. Thus, on the one hand we have a John Williams score, all plaintive piano solos and sobbing horns, that could have been composed thirty years ago. In the same vein, our first sight of Lincoln is from behind, the radiance of his fame being too much to contemplate head on, and we even get a foolish coda, with our hero manifested like an angel through a flickering candle flame, as if the film were unable to leave him be. On the other hand, we get Tommy Lee Jones smacking his lips over slices of succulent speech: “We find the mephitic fumes of his oratory a lethal challenge to our pulmonaries,” he growls, staring down the hapless Wood in the House. Then, there is James Spader, an actor too little used of late, plucking a peach of a part—W. N. Bilbo, one of a trio of enforcers, hired by Seward to bully wavering House voters as the day of reckoning nears. Resplendent in whiskers and purple waistcoat, Spader enjoys every minute, haring to the White House mid-debate to beg a note from the President, and greeting the great man, as he pays a visit to the enforcers’ hideaway, with the cheery words “Well, I’ll be fucked!”
Lincoln is undeterred. “I wouldn’t bet against it,” he replies, with a knowing grin. It is in Day-Lewis, needless to say, that this tension between the high and the homespun coheres. One glance at his walk tells you what sort of fresh ground the performance intends to break. Not for him the long, commanding stride that carried Henry Fonda through John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” but a singular shuffle, half comic, half sorrowful, like that of a man hastening to catch up with a funeral procession and threatening at any instant to tip over and fall on his nose. The voice, too, is pitched a good octave above Fonda’s, yet how swiftly we are lulled into its anecdotal ease. “I heard tell once,” he begins, and the roomful of listeners is hushed in expectation. In a way, that is not far from Ford, although he would not have countenanced the superb moment when Spielberg, eager to crack the spell, has Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill), the Secretary of War, peel away in exasperation as Lincoln halts a busy night—they are waiting for news, by wire, from the shelling outside Wilmington—to launch into yet another fondly polished tale.
We can only imagine how Liam Neeson, a gruffer presence, who for a long while was Spielberg’s choice of leading man, would have fared as Lincoln; and I hope one day to see Viggo Mortensen, whose bone structure has the right sad concavity, impress himself on the role. What we derive from Day-Lewis, though, is the mysterious—and accurate—sense of a man who by instinct and by expertise reaches out to the people he leads while seeming lost in himself. Could that be why he buffs his own boots, even when his valet is beside him? Some of his frowns, like his conspiratorial smiles, exist less in response to others than for the benefit of private rumination, and the film has barely begun before he is quoting Hamlet, on bad dreams, in the midst of a chat with his wife, Mary (Sally Field). Later, there is a contretemps with his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who wishes to enlist. This flimsy subplot is beside the point—it could have been junked entirely—and yet, when Lincoln discusses the matter with Mary, the result is all the more distressing because the President’s harshest quarrel is not with her but with his conscience, and with his mortal thoughts. Just as the fracas over the Thirteenth Amendment has to carry the symbolic flag for Lincoln’s lifelong quest, so the spectacle of one married couple raging over whether their child should fight, and whether he might die, crystallizes the fears of a generation. Through sickness, infant fatality, and military service, these folk lived more closely with death than we can ever know.
At the end of the scene, Sally Field sinks beautifully to the ground, the hooped skirt of her pale dress subsiding around her like a balloon. Here, we feel, is the authentic sigh of exhaustion, emanating from a woman wracked not just by headaches but by the pressure of public performance—the unremitting demand, imposed upon her husband, for words and deeds. (To her, reëlection means “four more years in this terrible house.” That may get a dry laugh in some quarters.) Many viewers may share her vexation, for “Lincoln” is unapologetically packed with eloquence, loud and soft. The President’s speech to his Cabinet, explaining why the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 may be insufficient, comes embellished with cadenzas of legal nicety, and lasts as long as an aria. But there is nothing inherently undramatic about a surge of talk; movies as different as “His Girl Friday” and “My Night at Maud’s” exert the tightest of grips, and a Lincoln film that paid inadequate heed to the forces of rhetoric would be like a porno film that stopped at the bedroom door. Nevertheless, you can sense Spielberg’s relief as the dialogue dwindles to a crisp minimum (“War’s nearly done. Ain’t that so?” Lincoln asks), or when voices die down altogether and the glow of images takes hold. Hence the firelit sight of Tad handling photographs, on frail glass plates, of children much the same age as him, though of another color, with prices marked “Two young boys. $700.” Hence, too, the shot of Lincoln—it should have been the closing shot of the movie—ambling down a hallway on what will be his last night out. The lofty, stooping figure heads away from us, with his back to the camera, but he doesn’t get any smaller as he goes. As Tolstoy said of Lincoln, in 1908, “We are still too near to his greatness.” Ain’t that so? ♦