There is a fleeting moment early in Steven Spielberg’s recent American Opus in which Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln enters a White House room one night to find his son asleep on the floor. The President tosses aside the official papers in his hand, kneels to brush back the hair from the eleven-year-old’s face and then lowers himself onto the floor beside him. The child blearily stirs and, knowing the ritual, moves onto Lincoln’s back. The gaunt, war-etched father/president rises forcefully, from floor to full height, his son clinging tightly.
We are meant to feel the great power of this. Spielberg’s camera tightens on a huge hand as it grips a chair. Instantly, we remember: the prairie and the muscled boy with an ax and the young man who earned respect on the Illinois frontier with his almost otherworldly physical strength. If this is Spielberg’s metaphor for the meaning of Lincoln–he who though nearly prone himself lifted a generation and even the nation to his great height–it would be fitting of all that is yet to come in this masterful gift to America.
We could hardly ask more of any movie than what Lincoln might mean for our nation at this time. The film comes to us when we are a drained, disillusioned people after an election in which one political party may have lost because millions of its members cared too little to vote and the other party won mainly because it feared not winning. Storms of every kind–moral, economic and atmospheric–have lashed the land. Our most esteemed military man has fallen in moral disgrace. There seem to be no Churchills on the rise, nor much nobility or statecraft among our leaders. We come to the end of 2012 largely grateful it is not 2008 with its fearful economic turbulence, and grateful, too, that all years end with distracting celebrations of faith, heritage, and family.
This year, we can also be grateful for Lincoln. It may remind us of who we are just enough to remind us of what we now must do. That it comes to us just as an African-American president begins a second term and just prior to the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1 of next year seems somehow a summons.
Of all that producer/director Steven Spielberg and scriptwriter Tony Kushner might have chosen to portray of Lincoln’s life, they have settled upon one month–January 1865–and one event, the battle for ratification of the slavery-ending Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Even schoolchildren can set the context. The war is slowing to a close. Lincoln’s prophetic Second Inaugural Address is but a month away, on March 4. The Confederate surrender at Appomattox will occur a month later on April 9. By Good Friday the following week, Lincoln will be dead. Our knowledge of this progression–and, at the time, Lincoln’s own sense of the looming grave–infuse events with urgency: We will not have Lincoln always with us. Slavery has set the clock of divine wrath in motion. Should the South rejoin the Union under terms of a peace agreement, it would block any slavery-outlawing act. The political coalitions essential to passing the Amendment may not–almost certainly will not–hold. We must act, as Lincoln is made to say, “Now! Now! Now!”
Within this historical range, Spielberg gives us far more than a window into an era, but rather a grand riot of an era enlarged and expounded. We are allowed to see what kind of men carved a nation of disparate immigrants and then, when it fractured, carved it again. We see the adolescence of ideas we have mistaken as belonging to our time alone. We see the price and processes of politics. This portrayal has power to change us. Once we’ve seen the film, we should never again read of an act of congress a century and half ago and see only the words on the page, forgetting the life’s blood such acts usually demanded.
We can be changed by this film in part because we cease feeling ourselves visitors to a foreign time within the first minutes. Spielberg recreates the era with precision but also with rich consistency and an unembarrassed nod to the eccentricities of the age. If a hairdo is overdone it is because the historical figure famously overdid it and not because designers overplayed their art. Most hairstyles are a riot of disorder, as they were in that day. Intentional chaos reigns also on sets where rooms of classically crafted architecture are filled with piles of books, children’s toys, wood shavings and half-eaten meals, the idiosyncrasies of the age and the historical figures well in view. Even the sound of Lincoln's watch in one scene–barely audible as befits the accompanying images of a president in contemplation–was recorded from the original in the Smithsonian. It all blends. It is all of a piece. Never are we jarred from thought by the kind of gaudy kitsch used in most period films.
Much in the same way, Spielberg allows his actors to simply be. We are transfixed by Tommy Lee Jones sitting motionless for what seem minutes just as the film reaches dramatic climax, when most movies are hurrying the audience to the chase. James Spader, a 1980's Brat Pack favorite who began to reclaim his art some years ago on ABC’s Boston Legal, gives us the eighteenth century doppelganger of his older, less self-conscious, more corpulent self. He is a one man Greek chorus. Sally Field is perfectly nerve-wracking as the always-on-the-edge-of-sanity First Lady. We both weep for Mary Lincoln’s sufferings and hope she will soon leave the room. She is an unsettling woman and Field plays her perfectly: charming, vain, raw and psychotic.
What is certain, though, is that Spielberg's Lincoln is, ultimately, Daniel Day-Lewis' Lincoln. He does not act. He does not channel. He dissolves himself and then re-incarnates. He is why this film, for all its grace and artistry, is far more than the product of masterful performances: it is the impartation of the great man’s spirit. Day-Lewis sitting motionless as Lincoln radiates more of Lincoln than any text, certainly more than any other film. He is the suffering, is the lone hours in dank-wood rooms with books the only companions, is the haunting of the darkness, the grappling with God. He allows you to draw near and only then moves and speaks. It is magnificent.
We should be grateful, also, that Spielberg, Kushner and Day-Lewis do not give us a narrow Lincoln. We are allowed all the mystifying complexity. Lincoln is crass and brooding and hard. He angrily slaps his adult son and tells aides they will do as he says since he is clothed in “immense power.” He admits to stepping beyond constitutional bounds in his pursuit of an end to the war. He admits he has doubts about the fate of blacks after freedom. He admits that Mary Todd has nearly sucked the life out of him, that her bottomless grief leaves no room for the mourning of Abraham or his son. He loves her and hates her. She loves him but blames him for killing her sons. It is madness. It is the Lincoln marriage. It is life unvarnished. It is Lincoln Agonistes.
The film has its flaws. An opening scene in which two white soldiers quote the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln with a black soldier giving the closing lines is Disney-esque and the closest Spielberg comes to the simplistic sentimentality of War Horse. The film may be too long for some audiences and it is certainly a “talkie,” meaning that talk, not action, propels the narrative forward. It is vaguely reminiscent of the historical novels of Gore Vidal, in which parlor scenes progress one upon the other, all action described by a stylishly attired character ensconced on the finest of chairs, sherry in hand.
Also disappointing is the treatment of Lincoln’s faith, so defining of the man and the president but nearly absent in this film. Indeed, in one of the few nods to any kind of religion, the film captures the president and First Lady on a carriage ride discussing where they will go after the war. Lincoln would like to go Jerusalem, to the city of “Solomon and David,” we are told. But the original account, given by Mary herself, has Lincoln saying that he would like to walk in the “footsteps of the Savior.” Why the change? Neither Spielberg nor Kushner, both men Jews, have ever retreated from Christian themes. Why now?
These, though, are the blemishes on the chin of The Mona Lisa. Spielberg’s Lincoln is a finely crafted gift to a beleaguered nation, an infusion of Father Abraham’s American heart when it is desperately needed. Some films remind us of the past. Some films bring the past to bear upon our own times. Few have the power to impart the spirit that was upon our fathers. Lincoln does.