Review: Spielberg and Kushner craft an important and emotional ‘Lincoln’

So far, one of my favorite strange digressions of Steven Spielberg’s career has been his collaboration with Tony Kushner.  I love it because it is so very unlikely, and because both of the films that have resulted from this creative conversation are so unlike the rest of Spielberg’s work. 

Kushner blew me away with “Angels In America” when it first opened on stage, and I think he’s got a very specific, very beautiful voice as a writer.  “Munich” is a film that I like more as I return to it, and I think Spielberg’s sentimental streak has found a perfect antidote in the frank and observational voice of Kushner’s words.  While I’m not a fan of biopics in general, I was curious to see what these two would make of Abraham Lincoln as a subject.  It’s about a big a canvass as there is in terms of American characters.  He has passed the point of icon and become a mythic figure at this point, and so making a film about him requires a point of view, a reason beneath the history, and Kushner and Spielberg found a pretty tremendous way into the film.

By focusing on essentially a single month of Lincoln’s life, we get a full and rich portrait of how he lived in his time.  When you are busy making history, I always wonder if you notice that you’re doing it, or if it is something that only becomes clear later.  I would think that the moment where our country went from allowing a slave-driven economic structure to beginning our long and still-evolving journey to guarantee the same rights and opportunities for all.  It was, by any measure, a moment of great optimism towards the better nature of mankind, and it was hard won.  I think that’s made clear in history class, that there was tremendous sacrifice and loss in the argument, but it’s not made immediate.  “Lincoln” does a good job of making it seem immediate.  It is meticulously crafted to draw you into the history, to make it feel like a tactile sensory experience.  This is no mere Disney’s Hall Of Presidents recreation of a few of the great man’s greatest hits.  In fact, the film opens with a scene that has other characters repeating portions of the Gettysburg address back to him, excited, moved by his words.  We see how his words meant different things to different people.  We can see how skeptical people on both side of the color divide are regarding progress.  We see Lincoln as a man constantly taking the temperature of a room, reading the wind, looking to the people to see that they are heard.  It’s all done quickly.  It’s done in a way that is charming and authentic, and right away, Daniel Day Lewis is magnetic in his immobility, his bemused smile giving us a window right into him.  It’s a great start, and the film remains engaging and richly informed throughout.

Not every audience is going to buy into the notion of “amendment vote as ticking time bomb,” but I like that the goal of the entire movie is the passage of the 13th Amendment which would abolish slavery.  The Civil War is also in its final stages, and peace is a big part of what Lincoln wants.  But he is afraid that the end of the war without the passage of the amendment would scuttle its chances at ever happening.  After all, if the war is over, then why rock the boat further?  By focusing in this close on this one period of Lincoln’s life, by centering the drama on the act of getting an Amendment ratified, Spielberg and Kushner have given us a stark snapshot of what America really is.  It’s an agreement to a set of shared rules.  It’s an ability to set aside our differences in favor of what we have in common.  It’s a process that should empower the individual while also taking care of the greater good.  It is an experiment, one that only works if we’re willing to let it work.  Watching how gummed up and complicated and personal the process was for Lincoln, it is impossible not to compare that to our current political landscape.  I am walking out the door of my house after I file this review and I am going to vote, and I have to say… seeing this film last week really was that one final reminder of just how little things have changed in this country and why.

When money is more important than people, we fail.  When we discuss human rights, it is all about the baby steps.  It’s interesting to see how many of the people in the film are willing to support the Amendment but who are visibly uneasy at the thought of blacks or even women having the vote.  Lincoln didn’t wave a magic wand and suddenly cure America of all its ills.  It was one point on a much larger timeline, and by focusing this far in on one moment, Spielberg and Kushner are making a very clear statement about that larger timeline.  They are reminding us that we are either moving forward or moving back.  There is no status quo in America.  There can’t be.  If we are stagnant, we are not America.  We are constantly welcoming new voices to the mix, constantly redrawing the field of engagement, constantly absorbing cultures and making them part of the fabric of our own lives.  We can either move further down that path towards real equality, real liberty, real freedom, or we can retreat for the moment knowing full well that change is inevitable.  Tolerance is only a matter of time.  It’s a shame that it takes the time it takes, but all you need to do is look at the larger historical timeline to see that we always progress.  We always move closer to acceptance.  And we’ll continue to do so today and in two years and in four years and in every local and every national vote. 

The battle of inches is fought on several fronts in “Lincoln,” and the supporting cast digs into the material with zeal.  Tommy Lee Jones is very good as Thaddeus Stevens, a hard-line abolitionist who is one of Lincoln’s greatest assets in winning this particular battle, and as good as Jones is throughout, it is his final scene in the movie that floored me.  I honestly never thought that the simple reading of an Amendment would move me to tears the way it does in this particular context, and it’s because of the human weight of the legislature that the scene so ably expresses.  James Spader is at his seediest, and he appears to be loving it, and everyone savors the Kushner dialogue, much of it drawn direct from historical records, all of it ringing of authenticity.  Michael Stuhlbarg does wonderful work in just a few short scenes, as does Walton Goggins.  There are so many actors who seem completely engaged here, like David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook, Lee Pace, Jared Harris, Tim Blake Nelson, Bruce McGill, and Jackie Earle Haley, and even that’s just the tip of it.  Gloria Reubens plays one of Mrs. Lincoln’s servants, and she has a great rapport with Sally Field, who makes the enormous mental distress that Mary Todd Lincoln suffered seem both real and bitterly painful.

And of course, at the center of it all, there is Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln.  He captures one of the things that always intrigues me when I read about Lincoln’s life, his funny side.  He is a gifted orator, and he loves to tell a story to make his point at any opportunity.  We even see that drive some people crazy, but it doesn’t phase him at all.  He seems to find great amusement in studying the people around him, and he seems to really listen when he’s speaking with somebody about their problems or their needs.  He wields his fame carefully, well aware of how easy it would be to use it to mow down others.  He would much rather change someone’s mind than outmaneuver them in politics, but he’ll do what he has to if it means passing the Amendment.  He is a canny politician with a distaste for politics, an interesting contradiction to play, and Day-Lewis is, as expected, remarkable.  For once, it doesn’t feel like someone dressed up in a Lincoln costume.  For once, he seems like a man, like he is human-scale, and it makes his accomplishments seem even more superheroic.

The film appears to have been lit so as to either be all-natural light or to appear that way, and I think the sort of burnished faded-photo look of it all largely works.  I still wish Spielberg would experiment more with other photographers.  I feel like the tech credits on Spielberg’s films are indeed the most prestigious you can name.  Rick Carter on production design, Michael Kahn cutting it, John Williams scoring.  That’s the way it normally goes, and certainly everyone does very slick work here.  But just as I think the interplay between Spielberg and Kushner pushes them both out of their comfort zones, resulting in a piece of work that is strong and smart and lively and significant, Spielberg might benefit from making a few films with a brand new team who might shake something new out of him.  No matter, though.  “Lincoln” is top-shelf adult entertainment, and a wonderful way of underlining one of the  most important ideas in regard to how our own political system works today:  you are either working towards something or against something, and eventually, change will win.  Lincoln himself would be proud of the America his actions helped shape, but he would see how much further there still is to go, and art like “Lincoln” is an important signpost to help us make sense of how this experiment is supposed to work in the first place.

“Lincoln” opens in NY and LA on Friday, November 9, 2012.