With certain kinds of subjects, it can be hard to separate out the quality of movies made about them from the relative significance and emotional freight which they carry. Given that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln had me fighting back tears in the first five minutes, it just might be that race in America is one such subject for me. As a critic interested in aesthetics, I have to insist that movies that are righteous in their values may in fact be reprehensible in their quality. Taking on racism or genocide or Jesus does not get you a free pass and, in a better world, would guarantee you a universally higher standard. The world we have, however, celebrates all variety of creative abominations solely for their noble intentions (not least in the Church, Kyrie eleison) and such I feared would be the cultural pressure attending a movie about slavery in an election year with a black president. Unlike so much noble agitprop, however, Lincoln shows the craftsmanship of Spielberg, et al. gelling virtuosically into a wonderful film that is by turns a political procedural, a character study and a historical snapshot.
It is not, in fact, a war movie, despite opening with a few spare minutes of combat that are just enough to register the bloody stage on which the rest of the film will be set. It’s an arrestingly chaotic sequence, shockingly intimate bayonets thrusting and fisticuffs in the mud. Black soldiers are center frame in this sequence, unsubtly underscoring the life and death struggle of which they are the unwilling locus. We stay with them immediately following the initial battle, as we’re introduced to Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) speaking one-on-one with troops after battle. As famous as he is for his speeches, in Lincoln it is face-to-face that he seems more at home. Spielberg and Day-Lewis present us a wily introvert with an iron will and a thousand undercurrents, not a gregarious statesman.
Day-Lewis, a brilliant and notorious method actor (likely much of the inspiration for Downey Jr.’s character in Tropic Thunder), turns in yet another intensely mannered performance which avoids calling undue attention to itself. It’s somehow both studied and seemingly effortless. The punctilious method fits the task of depicting this certainly punctilious character. We get Lincoln the pragmatist, the do-whatever-it-takes political workhorse. The film literalizes one of the president’s many metaphors, assuming that we know the “true north” of the situation (slavery is wrong and must end) and immersing us in the deserts and swamps which waylay our heroes on their journey towards the goal. It’s only in the contested, miry thick of it that we are introduced to our most lionized and mythologized national leader.
The crux of the film hinges on the sixteenth president’s decision to push for an amendment to the Constitution that will abolish slavery. Rather than take us through the tired motions of yet another hagiographical biopic replete with infancy and passion narratives, Spielberg wisely chose to make a film about Lincoln-as-leader, a man revealed in the process of doing what it was that makes us keep on remembering him. We don’t need to know where he went to law school or what dating Mary Todd was like, we just want to know what made that iconic bearded beanpole so special. Lincoln charts out a fascinating picture of federal political process during the height of war–the backroom deals, the speechifying, the intractable divisions, the hand-wringing, the pull-no-punches lengths deemed to be necessary means. And it shows us how Abraham Lincoln walked a tightrope through all of them.
I am cynical about politics, and Lincoln kind of Leslie Knope’d me. I am easily distracted and distraught by the darkness of human past and present; Lincoln lit some flickers of hope in my soul. It inspired me. It’s a picture of a hard-nosed man who decided what was right and did what it takes to ensure that it happened. The notion of a political “decider” fell out of vogue this past decade, but Lincoln should stir you with its willful leader and his electrifying appraisal of human dignity. It’s a beautifully composed painting about doing the right thing and a righteous inspiration to anyone who’ll listen. And it’s reminder that you might get shot in the head if you follow in his footsteps.