If you admire Abraham Lincoln, if you rate Daniel Day-Lewis as a great actor, and if Steven Spielberg movies are major events in your moviegoing life, then you, like me, have found it difficult to wait for Spielberg’s new film, Lincoln. Who wouldn’t want to see the actor who starred in My Left Foot and The Last of the Mohicans, who inspired us as Gerry Conlon (In the Name of the Father) and disturbed us as Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) work with the director of Schindler’s List to bring the Great Emancipator to life?
And yet, if you, like me, have found Steven Spielberg’s career since Raiders of the Lost Ark to be a roller-coaster ride of highs and lows — scenes ranging from masterful to mediocre to almost unbearably sentimental — then you may be nervous, braced for disappointment.
Well, the wait is over.
As I emerged from a screening of Lincoln this week, I was surprised at how I felt. And I did not say any of the things I expected I would say upon leaving the theater.
God knows I never dreamed that I would emerge from this movie and immediately exclaim: “James Spader was fantastic!” But that’s what happened. I’d be as excited about following Spader’s character, W. N. Bilbo, around late-1800s America in a spin-off series as I am excited about seeing that other “Mr. Bilbo,” the one in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. More about Spader’s big-screen comeback later. Let’s start with the most important things.
I feared I’d sigh, shake my head, and say, “Well, just as he did in Amistad and Hook, Spielberg has let his emotions get the better of him, pouring too much syrup over a decent stack of pancakes.” But no. This is not the Steven Spielberg of Amistad and Hook and those blasted Saving Private Ryan bookend scenes, thank goodness.
It’s a more thoughtful, more observant Steven Spielberg. We caught glimpses of him here and there in Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, and War Horse, but even there his inclinations toward nostalgia, formulaic feel-good moments, and operatic emotionalism got the better of him. He demonstrated his restraint best in Munich, which was an impressive but almost desperate attempt to demonstrate that he could rein himself in and evoke emotion instead of demanding it, that he’s as interested in engaging a viewer’s intellect as he is in seizing and squeezing that viewer’s heart.
I’ve long believed that the most fascinating sight on the big screen is a human being who is, persuasively, deep in thought. I love moments that captivate us with convincing evidence that something is really happening within the character’s cranium. That takes a gifted actor and a director willing to exercise patience and fierce observation.
Lincoln is one of those rare movies. It’s a movie about thinking. Quick-thinking, at times, yes — it’s not a boring history lesson but a long battle-scene in which the weapons are wits, courage, powers of persuasion, and knowledge of the law. Lincoln’s sizable head is a country all its own, at war with itself. This Abraham Lincoln commands respect because he does not merely react; he responds. And he responds after taking the time compose his thoughts, and to let the better angels of his nature wrestle the lesser ones. His ponderous silences are the eye of a Civil War hurricane. He does not think in the sound-bite dialogue of Hollywood that lives on cleverness. He thinks in paragraphs. He thinks in essays.
And when he speaks, we can see why the wise listen, and why the impatient grow agitated and leave. Because when he speaks, he is prepared, and he might answer with an anecdote, or a parable, or a speech. When he does fire off a reprimand or an insult, it’s so startling and sharp that we hardly know what has hit us until we’re well into the next scene.
Spielberg’s Lincoln is a marvel because it feels enough like a big Oscar-season Hollywood movie to be accessible to the Friday night moviegoer, but it also remains thoroughly committed to persuasive (but not showy) period details, to distinct character traits, to its exquisitely idiosyncratic screenplay by Tony Kushner, and to quiet and reflective moments. It does not feel like a picture you’d find in an Americana gift shop. It delivers human beings who seem three-dimensional even though we’re not wearing special glasses. It feels like we are getting a sense of what people were really like, in the moment-to-moment complexity of politics, in the roar of a hurricane of social evolution.
I worried that I might emerge saying, “Daniel Day-Lewis was just too grandiose. His eruptions in There Will Be Blood are the stuff of legend now, so he’s going to do what worked and go over the top every time.”
No, not even close. This is just as complicated a performance as the one in There Will Be Blood, if not more so. But it reminds us that where most actors can play a few notes, and some have an impressive keyboard at their command, Daniel Day-Lewis plays a full, grand piano. This is not just the man who played Daniel Plainview and Bill the Butcher, but also the man who played Cecil Vyse, the quiet and annoying and comical and ultimately tragic character at the heart of A Room with a View. This is the actor who grew up learning a lesson or two from the art of his father, who was a poet rather than an orator.
I approached this movie thinking, “I have no desire to watch Spielberg show us just how horrible war can be, no desire to be impressed by grim battlefield reenactments.” I needn’t have worried. The opening shots of Civil War are enough to burden the rest of the movie with the weight of increasing losses.
I suspected that I would have to march through surging waves of John Williams’ original score like a soldier in Saving Private Ryan trying to make it through the waves to the shore on D-Day. But Williams delivers a modest, effective score that I barely noticed until the film’s climactic scenes.
I suspected that the cast, populated with famous names and faces, would be distractingly familiar. But every actor is excellent, bringing to life a world of characters — Congressmen, aides to the President, Lincoln’s family, friends, foes, African Americans — with such distinction, personality, and humor that I was never confused by the crowds.
I’ll give particular praise to Tommy Lee Jones, who becomes the easiest character for contemporary American moviegoers to understand, for he plays Thaddeus Stevens, a man who believes passionately in racial equality but has to consider accepting a compromise far, far short of that. While Jones’s face and voice are the most familiar in the film, he uses silence more than speech to give Stevens gravity and power.
I was a bit disgruntled to see that some of the faces leading the Southern opposition to slavery’s abolition (Jackie Earle Haley, for example) seemed skeletal, and almost demonic in their expressions. It seemed too easy to demonize them by their appearance. But then I saw the photographs of the real people and, well, another point for accuracy to Mr. Spielberg.
These and so many other actors deserve praise. I haven’t yet begun to praise Sally Field, who, as Mary Todd Lincoln, is both sympathetic in her grief and yet frightening in the additional burdens she places on her husband’s conscience and patience. Field, 11 years older than the actor playing her husband, was a surprising choice, but a great one. Watching her and Day-Lewis argue in the film’s most emotionally explosive scene, you have to wonder who else could have achieved such a complex potrayal of conscience, pain, and near-madness.
Then there’s the aforementioned James Spader, who comes roaring back to the big screen with a startling turn as a Democratic operative named W. N. Bilbo. It’s the funniest thing he’s ever done, and that includes his hilarious work on TV’s Boston Legal. Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) contributes even more comic relief to scenes that could have been merely dramatic.
And speaking of humor… I never anticipated that I would come out of this film, which I expected to be ponderous, saying, “Wow, that may be the funniest movie of Spielberg’s career.” It was brave of him to cultivate so much situational comedy on such hallowed ground as the Lincoln presidency. That, too, is evidence of research. (The film is based, somewhat, on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book A Team of Rivals). Because the comedy doesn’t feel forced or added on; it grows right out of scenarios in which desperate politicians engage in a conflict of semantics, struggle through convoluted legal procedures, and lose control of their tempers. This movie makes the stormy election season that Americans just endured seem almost civil by comparison.
I’ve only seen it once, and my thoughts and feelings about Spielberg’s films have been known to change over time. (My love for Minority Report quickly faded after subsequent viewings, and my enthusiasm for the fourth Indiana Jones film was a fleeting illness from which I quickly recovered.) I’m not sure I’m quite ready to say it stands alongside Raiders, Close Encounters, and Empire of the Sun — my favorite Spielberg films. And it may not contain individual scenes that burn themselves into cinematic memory the way that, say, the T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park did, or the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan. But it looks to me like a towering achievement. This is the work of an artist who is finally learning to trust his cinematic powers, to focus on the delicate art of bringing characters to life instead of the anxious work of provoking one’s audience into reacting.
And I sincerely hope that the eventual video release includes extra hours in which Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln just goes on telling stories about famous American names, reflecting on his childhood memories, and performing Honest Abe’s great speeches in their entirety.
You’ll notice I have not said anything about the film’s themes, what it shows us about America then, what it suggests about America now. That’s the thing about Lincoln: It’s one of the only American films released this year that demands long, thorough, thoughtful reviews. I’m sure that I’ll amend this review, and write another as well. The more I think about this movie, the more impressed and inspired I become. It makes me dream of a world in which people manifest malice toward none, charity toward all, and honors toward Steven Spielberg.