The difficulty with making films about historical characters is that the audience comes armed with prejudice. The face is familiar to us in a way that creates rather than closes a distance. It is a face that stands for something so that the person the face belongs becomes a kind of shorthand for an ideal or a moment in time. That person ceases to be a human being. He is larger than life.
Characters larger than life are conveniently not like us. We excuse ourselves for living our small, ordinary lives because, after all, we are not like the great men who perform great deeds.
So when faced with the choice to see a movie about Lincoln, who is much more a myth than a man, does it feel rather like a school assignment? Of course it does. As such, I went expecting very little. How would Spielberg make this movie something other than spectacle?
Spielberg succeeds by eschewing spectacle entirely, by starting with Lincoln listening to soldiers on the front and continuing with the small details of a domestic scene: a husband and wife talking. For the entire movie, he remains on this tight focus of personal conversation. (Don’t let the trailer fool you.) He removes the epic from what, in America, is always viewed as epic: our great divide, the Civil War. He makes history personal.
What a challenge to move us past the the filters of our eyes, that familiar figure, the costumes, the old-fashioned speech until we are caught up with the people, their personalities, their arguments, and personal passions.
The focus of the movie is not on Lincoln’s life, in a biographical sweep, or on the Civil War but on passing a piece of legislation: the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution, which abolishes slavery and involuntary servitude except as a punishment for crime. The film is a study in politics, about what men do to get things done: when they stand their ground in the face of opposition and when they compromise—about doing anything you have to do when your need to accomplish it is more important to you than yourself as an individual…even if those things are not exactly neat and tidy.
The tone and pacing of the movie is very like TV show, The West Wing…just in a different period. And like that show, and perhaps the real life West Wing of the Clinton and Obama administrations, the president’s wife plays a key role as confidant and partner. She is not just part of the scenery. She has dimension.
Daniel Day-Lewis delivers the goods by not chewing the scenery. When his Lincoln is very, very angry he gets deathly quiet. After awhile you forget Lincoln’s face, you forget Daniel Day-Lewis’s face and you begin to see a person not unlike yourself.
The only bone I have to pick with Spielberg is the usual one. He doesn’t know when to end a movie. He should’ve stopped several scenes earlier, with Lincoln walking down the hallway after success. Instead, we have to continue onto the assassination and the mourning and one last ending speech.
Other than that quibble, Lincoln is a good film. It’s probably the only film I’ve seen this year that I’d like to see again. In fact, if you were here, I’d say let’s go now.