In the absence of factual data, we often fill in the blanks with archetypes. So it was with Abraham Lincoln. Admired, respected, nearly deified, the Lincoln we knew in our youth was a tall man of serene demeanor, with a deep voice, and an unflappable dignity.
About the only part we got right was that he was tall.
Using Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book as a foundation, Steven Spielberg and (most especially) Daniel Day-Lewis have given us a new Lincoln, a more complete Lincoln, and he is in nearly every way different from what we’ve imagined.
“Lincoln” is in every way I can judge an excellent film: from the direction to the costumes, set decoration to the screenplay, acting to the cinematography. It has to be on the short list for Oscar contention, and we should just give Day-Lewis his award right now.
If I had to pick on something, it would be the soundtrack. As a classically trained musician, I’m perhaps a bit more sensitive to soundtracks than most, and John Williams isn’t one of my favorite composers. Williams never shies from quoting other composers (or his own work, for that matter), and few movies he has scored don’t have his big thumbprint all over them. This movie is no exception. In it, he quotes heavily from Aaron Copland, but in this case, I’m tempted to overlook it. Copland and Lincoln are closely tied, primarily through Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” a moving and beautiful work of spoken word and symphonic music that, most famously narrated by Gregory Peck, helped burn in the “deep-voiced Lincoln” of our early years.
Beyond this one exceptionally minor complaint, the movie is simply flawless. The many characters are kept clear in the viewer’s mind. The tedious business of politics and back-room horse-trading is made intriguing and at times even exciting. The pressure of those four weeks in 1865, the conflicting demands of politics and war, of what is right and what is expedient, are all distilled, layered, and shown with unvarnished realism. The Democrats and Republicans of the time, almost the polar opposites of their roles today, still give us stark lessons in what politics is, and what is required to move the country forward.
Spielberg does not pull his usual sentimental tricks in this movie, and it is by far better for the lack. His direction is subtle, quiet, observational. He does not get in the way as he has so often in movies like “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” He does not tap us on the shoulder and point to the screen, saying “Hey, this is an important point.” No, he keeps in the background, directing the action, but not the viewer, and we get to experience the movie on our own, with our own sentiments as context.
As for Daniel Day-Lewis, not enough can be said. There are some actors with which we of this age are blessed, and he is one. His portrait of this man, informed by endless study and inquiry, is as accurate as we will likely get. Physically, from the high-pitched voice to the lugubrious, almost marionette-like tread down the long hallway of the White House, we see a very different man than we previously imagined. This Lincoln laughs, tells ribald jokes, rages with ill temper and frustration, is avuncular and crafty in equal measure.
Supported by a magnificent cast—Sally Fields gives us an understandable (if unflattering) character of Mary Todd Lincoln, and Tommy Lee Jones…well, when did he learn such subtlety?—give this film its final polish.
It is a masterpiece on every level.