Perhaps the most enduring image from Steve Spielberg’s extraordinary Lincoln is the titular president’s moment of triumph. He’s not surrounded by the colleagues he’s so relentlessly pushed to pass the amendment abolishing slavery. He’s not in the company of the family he’s by turns pushed aside and leaned on during his presidency. No, he’s alone in a room, bathed in curtained daylight from a single window, and only knows the amendment has been passed as bells begin to toll all over Washington. He’s made history, yet is apart from it. And that’s the greatest feat that Spielberg and Daniel Day-Lewis accomplish here. They’ve essentially rescued Lincoln from the burden of history. They’ve taken an icon from our coins and mountainsides and theme park attractions and given him back the very thing that made him such a beloved and enduring president in the first place: his humanity.
Windows and light are a recurring motif here, Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski seemingly aware of the new light, the glimpse inside they’re offering here. Lincoln often emerges from shadow, or is seen in silhouette, alternating with scenes where he sits in the only light in a darkened room. It’s an evocation not only of the historical shadow this cinematic Lincoln is stepping out of, but the shadow of civil war that loomed over so much of his presidency. Indeed, there’s a sense here that, beyond the moral implications, Lincoln so desperately wants the 13th amendment to pass so that his legacy is something more than presiding over the bloodiest war in our nation’s history. If so much blood is to have been spilled, at least let it be in the service of something lasting.
Day-Lewis has forever redefined how we’ll view Lincoln with his performance here. Gone is the deep-voiced, brooding figure the American myth has so long presented, replaced by a gentle, humorous man who would rather win people over to his side with a folksy story or an appeal to their better natures than with oratorical bluster (in one scene, he simply ends a speech by saying, “That’s my speech.”). Indeed, the only time in the film that Lincoln wields the full weight of his office is in the final hours of the effort to pass the amendment, when he sees his team faltering so close to the goal. Only then does he raise his voice, rise to his full height, and proclaim that he is “clothed in immense power,” a power all the more effective for how sparingly he uses it. Of course, he’s not above letting others wield that power in his name; one highlight of the film is the comical trio of John Hawkes, Tim Blake Nelson, and an amazing James Spader as a trio of political operatives trying to woo the opposition with promises of employment in the new administration.
It’s a dirty, shady business whose seediness Lincoln fully acknowledges. He’s entirely aware of the questionable nature of the Emancipation Proclamation, and completely cognizant that he’s committing an impeachable offense when he feigns ignorance of a Confederate delegation sent to discuss peace. But he’s also clearly in love with the whole messy democratic process, the dealing, the cajoling, the side-taking and fist pounding. He sees strength in compromise, the prevention of one point of view holding full and unbreakable sway over the others. Whether he’s discussing the logic behind freeing the slaves in the Southern states or the political reality awaiting those states at war’s end, he relishes the fact that he can ultimately be held responsible for his actions by the people. They had a year and a half to think about the Emancipation Proclamation, he argues, and they re-elected him. Surely that validation makes what he did right. It’s hard not to see a reflection of that in our most recent election, where a president whose ideas and policies were debated and derided for most of his term won re-election on the strength of those who supported those ideas and policies. In fact, it’s interesting to ponder how different Lincoln would have felt in the wake of an Obama defeat. What feels like a warts-and-all celebration of the democratic process might instead feel like a eulogy for a kind of government that had been defeated.
As mightily as Day-Lewis towers over this film — he’s a shoe-in to be nominated for an Oscar, if not the odds-on favorite to win — everyone in the cast is simply stellar. Sally Field invests what could have been a caricature of Mary Todd Lincoln with genuine emotional underpinning for the well-documented mental problems she suffered. She’s not just Hollywood crazy, she’s a grieving mother who knows she may one day be grieving both another son and a husband, and simply cannot handle the strain. Tommy Lee Jones isn’t simply righteous bluster as notorious abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens; there’s a core of moral humanity at the center of his performance, given glorious life in a surprising scene shortly after the amendment passes. There’s really not a false note in any of the performances. It’s undoubtedly the best-acted film in Spielberg’s career, a notable achievement for a director who’s not really thought of as an actor’s director. And this is as un-Spielberg as Spielberg’s been since Schindler’s List, a remarkable display of restraint that’s content to let the myriad other pieces of excellence in the film shine without his usual bag of visual tricks.
If the film maybe forgoes what could have been a haunting final shot to take us to the end of Lincoln’s life, it feels less like narrative excess and more like a desire to put a period at the end of a grand sentence. When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton utters the immortal, “Now he belongs to the ages,” it’s after we’ve been shown why. You can debate Lincoln’s real motives behind ending slavery, or his true opinion of the equality of the races (both given notable mention in the film), but the portrait that Spielberg and Day-Lewis draw here is inarguable. We’re asked to put aside the why of what Lincoln did and embrace the enduringly American how of it. Lincoln is a tribute to a great man, yes, but also a tribute to the great nation and its people in which that man so firmly believed.