Because movies are mostly disappointing these days you sometimes forget why there are film critics at all, until a movie like Lincoln comes along. It takes awareness of both history and film history to appreciate Lincoln. It takes an attention span and a curiosity about life in general, politics, American history. If none of that works for you, you must know enough about acting, writing and directing to recognize greatness when it comes along. Most of us have grown up with Steven Spielberg. While he’s out there hunting down projects, making films and waiting for the reaction from the public and critics, we sit back and judge him to our liking. We take a gifted filmmaker like him for granted because he has such a high delivery rate. But just as Lincoln is a moment to stand back and behold just how gifted Spielberg really is, so it is a time to appreciate those writers out there who are enriching film criticism. It is almost as enriching an experience reading these reviews as it is watching the film. I’ve excerpted them here, but you would do well to go back and read all of them.
Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” has a lot to live up to, even when you get past the fact that its subject is the greatest of all American presidents and one of history’s most mythologized characters. Its cast members have won at least five Oscars, with two apiece belonging to the odd but compelling duo at the center of the story, Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln and Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, his tormented and demanding co-strategist and life partner. The two best-known previous films about our 16th president were made by D.W. Griffith and John Ford, who represent exactly the kind of classic American cinema against which Spielberg measures himself.
Then there’s the question of Spielberg’s up-and-down directing career, which includes three Oscars of his own, several of the biggest hits in movie history and a marked propensity for sentimental overreach when he tries to tackle serious drama. (I remain somewhat willing to defend both “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List,” for example, but both are great in parts rather than great as a whole.) Expectations for “Lincoln” could not possibly have been higher, and I’m inclined to think that Spielberg’s biggest challenge in making it lay in overcoming his own worst impulses, in avoiding sweeping oratory, montages of Civil War dead and a slow-motion assassination scene in Ford’s Theatre, all set to a keening John Williams violin score. (“Lincoln” does in fact have a score by Williams, but it’s effective and rarely obtrusive.)
I wanted to take a moment to honor Spielberg’s accomplishment here because it would be easy to overlook it. You don’t think about the way “Lincoln” is directed while you’re watching it, mostly because you’re working through the bristly, challenging language of Kushner’s screenplay, or caught up in Day-Lewis’ portrayal of a dry, angular prairie lawyer, prone to long-winded and semi-relevant anecdotes, who finds himself in the White House at a crucial turning point in the nation’s history. You’ll certainly notice Janusz Kaminski’s gorgeous, subdued camerawork, along with Rick Carter’s production design, which captures the muddy streets and rough-hewn, horizontal landscape of 1860s Washington in documentary detail.
Spielberg’s greatest strengths as a director lie in structure and balance – the way he handles main plot and subplot, central characters and supporting characters. Add in Kushner’s remarkable ability to create distinctive characters in a line or two of dialogue and you get one of the richest and deepest casts in recent Hollywood history. Certainly Day-Lewis as Lincoln dominates his scenes, with his angular raven’s frame, the smile that lets you know he’s thinking a step ahead of you, the flattened and slightly ironic Midwestern cadence of his speech. (Obviously no films or audio of Lincoln exist – he was a few decades early for that — but Day-Lewis has clearly studied the many descriptions of his physical and vocal manner.)
But there are so many other vivid characters and scenes in “Lincoln” I cannot possibly list them all. There are major supporting roles, like Tommy Lee Jones as Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a radical abolitionist who had long viewed Lincoln as a sellout, or David Strathairn as the stern but loyal William Seward, Lincoln’s secretary of state (who played the role of in-house enforcer that a White House chief of staff might play today). There are memorable bit parts, including James Spader as a New York scoundrel hired by Seward to win over wavering Democratic congressmen, or Lee Pace as the pro-slavery Democrat and famous orator Fernando Wood, who gave fulminating House speeches accusing Lincoln of setting himself up as an American Caesar. And then there’s Sally Field.
We don’t have time to unpack all the theories and arguments about why Field – who won two best-actress Oscars in the ‘80s, the only two times she’s been nominated – seemed to drop off the Hollywood radar screen after she turned 50, even as Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep sailed from one triumph to the next. She was more of an ingénue than they ever were, I guess, and I’m aware of the general opinion that a little Sally Field goes a long way. Whatever moment of inspiration caused Spielberg to cast her as Mary Todd Lincoln, it was sheer genius, because this is a role that demands bigness.
By all accounts a feared and respected woman who was not much liked or loved (arguably not by her husband either), Mary was seen by many contemporaries as the power behind the throne, if not something more than that — the fire that drove Lincoln forward. While some biographers have understood her as mentally ill (and that remains a possibility), Kushner presents her, in just two major scenes, as a woman of tremendous agony and pathos, sublimating all her ambition and desire into her husband and her sons. In our own age, Mary Lincoln could have been a politician herself, or almost anything else she could imagine; in Field’s ferocious portrayal, she is a feminist hero many decades before the advent of feminism, who made her own indelible contribution to American history.
Ann Hornaday, Washington Post:
A peculiar, powerful alchemy takes hold in “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s masterful portrait of the 16th U.S. president. Through that strange mix of realism, artifice, intimacy and scope that cinema uniquely possesses, viewers find themselves transported to 19th-century Washington, where Abraham Lincoln — portrayed in a surpassingly sympathetic performance by Daniel Day-Lewis — has just been reelected to a second term.
But instead of a grand tableau vivant that lays out the great man and his great deeds like so many too-perfect pieces of waxed fruit, Spielberg brings the leader and viewers down to ground level. Released from the plinth of the usual monumentality and worshipful adoration in which he’s so often trapped, Lincoln has been liberated — the better to joke, grieve, spin yarns, brood and work his considerable wits and wiles in the service of political sausage-making at its spiciest and most untidy.
Thus “Lincoln” gratifyingly dodges the kind of safe, starchy hagiography that some Spielberg skeptics feared. Rather, the filmmaker, who has brought Auschwitz and the besieged beaches at Normandy to life with such rigor and detail, proves yet again that he is the best filmmaker currently engaging in the form of assiduous research and creative interpretation known as historical drama.
Working from a dense, lively screenplay by playwright Tony Kushner (who last collaborated with Spielberg on “Munich”), Spielberg infuses “Lincoln” with energy, acumen, surprising humor and the unabashed affection for his subject that most Americans will wholly understand and probably share.
And the genius of “Lincoln,” finally, lies in its vision of politics as a noble, sometimes clumsy dialectic of the exalted and the mundane. Our habit of argument, someone said recently, is a mark of our liberty, and Mr. Kushner, whose love of passionate, exhaustive disputation is unmatched in the modern theater, fills nearly every scene with wonderful, maddening talk. Mr. Spielberg’s best art often emerges in passages of wordlessness, when the images speak for themselves, and the way he composes his pictures and cuts between them endow the speeches and debates with emotional force, and remind us of what is at stake.
The question facing Lincoln is stark: Should he abolish slavery, once and for all, even if it means prolonging the war? The full weight and scale of this dilemma are the central lesson “Lincoln” asks us to grasp. The film places slavery at the center of the story, emphatically countering the revisionist tendency to see some other, more abstract thing — states’ rights, Southern culture, industrial capitalism — as the real cause of the Civil War. Though most of the characters are white (two notable and vital exceptions are Stephen Henderson and Gloria Reuben, as the Lincolns’ household servants), this is finally a movie about how difficult and costly it has been for the United States to recognize the full and equal humanity of black people.
There is no end to this story, which may be why Mr. Spielberg’s much-noted fondness for multiple denouements is in evidence here. There are at least five moments at which the narrative and the themes seem to have arrived at a place of rest. (The most moving for me is a quiet moment when the 13th Amendment is read aloud. I won’t give away by whom.) But the movie keeps going, building a symphony of tragedy and hope that celebrates Lincoln’s great triumph while acknowledging the terror, disappointment and other complications to come.
Some of the ambition of “Lincoln” seems to be to answer the omissions and distortions of the cinematic past, represented by great films like D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,”which glorified the violent disenfranchisement of African-Americans as a heroic second founding, and “Gone With the Wind,” with its romantic view of the Slave Power. To paraphrase what Woodrow Wilson said of Griffith, Mr. Spielberg writes history with lightning.
Go see this movie. Take your children, even though they may occasionally be confused or fidgety. Boredom and confusion are also part of democracy, after all. “Lincoln” is a rough and noble democratic masterpiece — an omen, perhaps, that movies for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Hollywood’s most successful director turns on a dime and delivers his most restrained, interior film. A celebrated playwright shines an illuminating light on no more than a sliver of a great man’s life. A brilliant actor surpasses even himself and makes us see a celebrated figure in ways we hadn’t anticipated. This is the power and the surprise of”Lincoln.”
These things all begin, as thoughtful films invariably do, with an excellent script. A Pulitzer Prize-winner for “Angels in America,” Kushner has always been adept at illuminating the interplay of the personal and the political. His literate screenplay, based on parts of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Lincoln,” is smart, dramatic and confident of the value of what it has to say.
Kushner has worked with Spielberg before (he co-wrote the Oscar-nominated “Munich” script) and his writing seems to bring out a level of restraint in their productions. There is nothing bravura or overly emotional about Spielberg’s direction here, but the impeccable filmmaking is no less impressive for being quiet and to the point. The director delivers selfless, pulled-back satisfactions: he’s there in service of the script and the acting, to enhance the spoken word rather than burnish his reputation.
The key speaker, obviously, is Day-Lewis. No one needs to be told at this late date what a consummate actor he is, but even those used to the way he disappears into roles will be startled by the marvelously relaxed way he morphs into this character and simply becomes Lincoln. While his heroic qualities are visible when they’re needed, Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is a deeply human individual, stooped and weary after four years of civil war but endowed with a palpable largeness of spirit and a genuine sense of humor.
Lincoln is an epic achievement. Smart, inspiring and bold, the film shows a vision for what government can be and what it can do. It presents a road map for sensible political compromise in the pursuit of historic and important goals. And it paints a compelling portrait of Abraham Lincoln as a flawed, imperfect man who was nonetheless a genius and a once-in-a-generation visionary.
This isn’t a biopic; Lincoln doesn’t take us from the log splitting days of young Abe to the White House. It doesn’t even spend much time on the Civil War. In fact the majority of the film takes place during the final months of the War Between the States, that great act of treason. The war is winding down and Lincoln, gaunt and grey, turns his attention to one last sweeping effort: the passage of the 13th Amendment.
Think of Lincoln as West Wing: 1865. The film’s essentially a political procedural, following the almost-frantic attempts of the Lincoln White House to finally, once and for all, eliminate slavery in America. Lincoln enjoyed support for the 13th Amendment when he argued that it would be a way to help end the war, but as the war’s finale looms, he knows people will be less likely to stand behind eradicating slavery. And so it all becomes a great political calculation as the man balances the fact that hundreds, if not thousands, of lives are being lost daily while he has to stall peace to wrest into being one of the greatest and most important changes in American history.
Lincoln is one of the least Spielbergian Spielberg movies. There are certainly times where he leans too heavily on the score, and he drags the ending out longer than it needs to go, but Lincoln is not one of his cloying Oscar movies. This isn’t Amistadagain (although it’s probably closest to Amistad in the whole of the Spielberg canon). Lincoln is a movie about ideas and intellectual courage, and Spielberg dials back most of his signature flourishes to allow the ideas and the debate to shine through. He puts his filmmaking into the service of every single word of Tony Kushner’s script. It is magnificent.
Lincoln never flinches from the conflicts of morality that the president faced. It never paints him as a saint – like everyone around him, he’s unsure that blacks should get the vote or even what will happen to the country once slavery is ended. He knows no black people. He knows only one thing: his belief that humans are created equal and that the idea of enslaving fellow men and women is completely evil. And he knows that he has this moment in time, these few weeks, to really follow through and end that evil.
Tension is a funny thing in cinema. You can create extraordinary tension even when the outcome is known. Ben Affleck did that wonderfully in Argo, and Spielberg does it masterfully in Lincoln. As the film comes to the Senate vote on the 13th Amendment the tension is thick, palpable. We all know how this ends – when’s the last time you bought somebody? – but the debate in the Senate is edge-of-your-seat stuff, an anxious, gut-knotting climax. It’s incredible! This is filmmaking at its highest.
NPR’s Ian Buckwalter:
The conflicts here between the congressional Democrats (who oppose the amendment) and the Republicans (who were themselves fostering a shaky alliance between opposed internal camps) are only barely more civil than the soldiers on the battlefields. Not even wartime and daily national tragedy is enough to keep these politicians from sniping at one another so viciously that it makes the most heated modern exchanges feel like a legislative love-in.
Presiding over all of this, with a reputation for nobly rising above the fray, is Abraham Lincoln, here portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in a performance so effortless and invisible that it’s easy to forget this is an actor playing Lincoln and not the man himself.
Day-Lewis’ Lincoln is soft-spoken and folksy, with a gentle, reedy voice unlike that of many of the actors who have played the man before, but truer to historical accounts of what he sounded like. That voice, as thin and willowy as the man himself, seems almost incongruous for a man of such charisma and presence — even more so when it becomes clear that Spielberg, along with screenwriter Tony Kushner, has put together a portrait of Lincoln that is as averse to pulling punches as are his battle sequences.