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.