The central reason to see Lincoln, the Spielberg directed film about the 16th President starring Daniel Day-Lewis, is, in fact, Daniel Day-Lewis.
Mr. Lewis’s performance is sublime, human, and profoundly (small r) republican. In Lewis, Lincoln’ politics emerge from the man’s inner life, his core, not the policies he promoted or the war he prosecuted. We see why Lincoln has become the centering - possibly the essential – American. His Lincoln is a man who understands what republics give us: The space for individuals to emerge. Given the rendering of Lincoln everywhere from Mt. Rushmore to Disneyland as a stiff, wise, tired old god, Day-Lewis hands us a wonderful gift: A human being.
Much of the acting is honed and spectacular. Sally Field re-emerges as one of our greats as Mrs. Lincoln. Field avoids the trap of playing crazy Mary Todd. In her limited screen time she fully owns her turf, confronting and protecting her husband by turns. Mrs. Lincoln is finally given her historical due in the hands of Sally Field. The scene in which she and Lincoln explode over the death of William Lincoln reminded me of Beatrice Straight’s breathtaking 5 minutes in Network.
Tommy Lee Jones as Radical Republican Thaddeus Stevens , is funny, harsh and insightful as well. Actually, every performance works. The film does not however. The bulk of it deals with the fight for passage of the 13th amendment in the House. As interesting as this may be for history junkies it makes for long stretches of tedium. I make this statement as a history junkie. I knew who every player was, what they were up to, what the motivations were…It was still boring. CSPAN with better lighting. Members of Congress may think what they do is always compelling, and I bet many will love this film, but horse trading for votes doesn’t make good drama on the big screen. A friend I went with commented afterward “A film about ending slavery with no slaves as major players becomes an academic exercise.” He’s correct. In drama, history lessons must emerge from stories about people. If the lesson is the story it’s a strange documentary, albeit with very skilled actors.
All that said, I found myself all but openly weeping more than once. Tony Kushner overwrote most of the script but he and Spielberg have the good sense to include the Gettysburg Address – via Union soldiers - and the 2nd inauguration speech. Other than the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’s preamble these two speeches are our most valued and embedded language. Much of who we are as a people comes from those two speeches. They are indestructible and they are ours.
It’s sad Lincoln doesn’t quite work. Hollywood, when it rises above self congratulation and greed, has the ability to lift and refine our perception. A well told story about our greatest healer is needed right now. Lincoln heals in fits and starts, then wanders into the weeds.
Nevertheless, the Irishman Daniel Day-Lewis gives us a Lincoln worthy of our greatest ideals because he gives us a man, not a sculpture.