Movies based on historical events are difficult to judge. Not only must they be authentic to the era depicted, but they still should be judged as art. Although fudging a little on the timetables and geography of history, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” remains true to the spirit of the era and the man, and is a beautifully filmed and told story, worthy of being called art.
“Lincoln” tells the tale of Abraham Lincoln’s personal and political life from January to April 1865. As the Civil War struggles to its bloody conclusion, President Lincoln pushes for passage of the 13th Amendment freeing slaves in the House of Representatives; it has already passed in the Senate and will still require passage in three-fourths of the State legislatures to become a part of the Constitution, but Lincoln pulls every political trick he can muster to ram it through the lame duck Congress. Meanwhile, Southern peace commissioners, led by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens are negotiating for peace (offering the same peace terms I visited in my novel “Cemetery Ridge”), and Lincoln’s tempestuous wife Mary, still grieving over the death of their son Willie three years earlier is fighting both Congress for her place in history, and her husband for her place in his weary life.
After watching plodding directorial efforts and badly written screenplays for most of the year, it is refreshing to see a master at the helm of this period piece: Steven Spielberg (“Jaws,” “Jurassic Park,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List”) still knows how to tell a story better than just about anyone in Hollywood. “Lincoln” is not your typical historical epic, with sprawling action scenes and wide vistas to draw your attention. This is a drawing room story, told mostly indoors, with a focus on the players in the great drama of American history. But Spielberg’s pace, deft camera work, and seamless editing make the story flow quickly and interestingly. The dialogue is crisp and evocative, revealing not only the plot, but the personality of the speaker (and the listener).
But Spielberg captures the visual interest of the story as well. Period costumes swath the characters in the Victorian era; the Washington D.C. skyline looms in the background, dominating everything and everyone; the claustrophobic interior décor of the White House presses in on Mary and Abraham Lincoln, Tad, and Robert and the audience; the almost informal halls of Congress give it a town hall feeling (it is the only setting in the movie, including outdoor shots, that is well-lit, carrying the theme that THIS is where the light shines); muddy streets reinforce the difficulty of travel; and the whiskers, my gosh, the whiskers of the era foraging across the faces of the characters bring to mind old daguerreotypes of crusty patriarchs reclining on the colonnaded porticos of their homes. There may be no special-effects induced action, but there is plenty of visual drama in “Lincoln.”
Daniel Day Lewis (“Gangs of New York”) is excellent as the yarn-spinning President, clothed always in a shroud of sadness. Sally Field (“Places in the Heart”) is gripping as the haunted Mary Todd Lincoln, struggling on the cusp of madness to be remembered. Tommy Lee Jones (“The Fugitive”) is mesmerizing as the sad-eyed, physically repulsive but sly-tongued radical Thaddeus Stevens. The rest of the cast is spell-binding as well.
But it is the nature of the story that is so compelling. Politics, like war, is a dirty business, and even noble-hearted idealists must succumb to its dark bidding to achieve good things. That “Lincoln” expresses this theme while its title character ages unnaturally, graying, stooping, and wrinkling like the portrait of Dorian Gray, reveals the sacrifices made for us by others, sacrifices worth remembering.