Lincoln: Anatomy of an Oscar Favourite
People can read film reviews anywhere online. Pick a critic you like, follow their blog or an RSS feed of their reviews, and you can sit in your little echo chamber forever content. Where, pray tell, could you find a film review that also sheds light on the political systems of other species? Unless you’re reading a review of The Secret of NIMH or something similar, your pool of options becomes far shallower.
With that in mind, we can proceed to talk about Lincoln, the new film from Jaws director and Hollywood Grand Duke Steven Spielberg. It does not tell the story of Abraham Lincoln; a film that tried to bite off that much would be setting itself up for serious digestion congestion. Instead, Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner tell a story about Abraham Lincoln, specifically how the tall, hatted sixteenth president finagled the House of Representatives into passing the Thirteenth Amendment. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals, the film is mainly concerned with the ugly, often unethical process of getting enough support to pass one of the most pivotal pieces of legislation in American history.
At once, you can see the tensions at play in the fabric of this story. On the one hand, you have a story about vote-buying and patronage, strategic lying and clever manoeuvring. It’s a story that could be set in an government at about any time. Democracy is a game of numbers, and making sure that you have more of the right people on your side than not is rarely a game of pure principle and honest civic engagement. On the other hand, however, the specific characters, setting, and context surrounding and inhabiting this procedural plot are some of the most iconic and mythical in modern history. Spielberg has a history of falling into sentiment, earned or not, and before watching this I feared that he would fall into a rote recitation of the national myth. Abraham Lincoln was an honourable and insightful chief executive who freed the slaves, won the Civil War, and laid the foundations for the great American hegemony in the twentieth century.
Fortunately, I instead witnessed a film willing to give us a minimally romanticized portrait of a man and a legislative system riven by complex conflicts. It’s a film more complex and engaging than a biopic about such a statuesque demigod should have a right to be. Spielberg, and especially his longtime composer John Williams, don’t resist all temptations to turn this into something a little too sacramental, but overall it’s a remarkable achievement of direction, writing, and acting.
First, a sentence about Daniel Day-Lewis. He’s flawless and carries the film during its rough patches–his attention not just to historical detail but to details, gestures, and line reading is admirable, and I could find no significant faults in his performance. Tommy Lee Jones as radical abolitionist and believer in (gasp) racial equality Thaddeus Stevens is playing well within his established range. It’s not surprising how good he is, but I appreciated the sardonic edge and energy he added as well. Stalwart character actor David Strathairn is similarly excellent in his role as Secretary of State William Seward, as was Sally Field. She lent a remarkable intensity to the character of Lincoln’s wife, Mary-Todd. Having seen many sons of her own die in the horrible war her husband is responsible for waging, she seems justifiably mad–in both senses of the term.
One weak thread in the film is the relationship between Lincoln and his son, Robert. Robert insists on leaving his law training and enlisting with the army, a proposal that understandably leaves his Presidential father cold and enrages his mother. I will acknowledge I find the interplay between this intimate household debate–which must remind Lincoln daily of the enormous blood cost of winning the war–and the broader political conflict intriguing. However, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Robert as stubborn and principled, like a few other characters in the film, but without much zest or distinction. Unfortunately, the performance and the lack of a satisfying resolution leave this thread of the story a little impoverished.
Something else that kept me from fully appreciating the film was the music. John Williams’ uplifting score is cut from much more conventional biopic cloth than the film itself, and when the strings start to jerk the tears out of you during a morally ambiguous moment or a particularly tough speech, I felt cheated. Occasionally, the cinematography plays into this tendency as well, flooding rooms with exterior light and changing the characters from fully embodied onscreen figures into stark silhouettes. Once or twice, the effect highlights the drama and provides a striking contrast between certain key scenes and the more realistic and low-key lighting elsewhere. After a few more times, however, it loses its effect. It never became actively irritating, but it was problematic.
I want to conclude with a brief note about the film’s treatment of history. Yes, it does what every standard historical biopic does. It elevates the people who happened to be in power during a pivotal societal moment into the only meaningful figures. It’s Great Man history writ however large the film screen is. Nonetheless, within the constraints of narrative film biography it gets the story it’s telling right enough to escape my wrath. I might change my mind on this later, but for now I am attempting to distance my thoughts on this fictional work from my approach to writing history. This is not history but a fantastical re-imagining of it. That doesn’t mean there are dragons added, but omissions can be just as fantastical and unreal as embellishments. As small a compliment as this is, this might just be the least terrible, most compelling biopic I’ve seen in a long time.
This is how you do Oscar bait the right way.