For most lovers of cinema, a Steven Spielberg feature film marks a welcome blessing on the release calendar. As perhaps the most influential film icon working today, Spielberg has created countless classic films and pioneered multiple aspects of the film industry.Thus, the expectations surrounding Lincolnhave been predictably high. But these anticipations are further heightened by Spielberg’s long-term interest in an Abraham Lincoln film.
Though based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Spielberg’s film is a departure from the traditional biopic its title suggests. Rather than reproduce the entire life story of Abraham Lincoln, screenwriter Tony Kushner and Spielberg made the conscious effort to focus on the several months leading up to his assassination. The president’s struggle to pass the 13th Amendment, an enactment abolishing slavery in the United States, drives the plot of Lincoln. Now, what has been often described in history books as a simple act of justice holds deeper, more complex undertones. Kushner’s script portrays Lincoln properly trying to end the Civil War, working with a divided House of Representatives and living with an unstable family.
In Lincoln, Spielberg refreshingly allows dialogue to take center stage. Kushner’s recognition of the significance of language to Lincoln’s persona comes through in the eloquent speeches and rich debate among the characters. With famous speeches, such as the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln is arguably one of the most profound speakers America has ever known. Kushner highlights the president’s eloquence by filling his script with an abundance of well-crafted lines. Originally an award-winning playwright, Kushner masterfully translates dense, dull political concepts into enthralling soliloquies. Cleverly, however, Kushner also adds a comical dimension to Lincoln to keep a constant hold on audiences’ attentions and to break up the presentation of heavy topics.
Kushner and Spielberg also make a brilliant decision in leaving the tense ending to Lincoln’s presidency and life offscreen. It’s a wise move, as a narrative beginning at his birth and concluding in his assassination would be much too long to fit into typical feature-film runtime. By limiting his literary scope to the last few months of Lincoln’s presidency, Kushner frees himself to tell a more compelling story and inject it with political and personal themes.
Though Lincoln’s terms as commander in chief transpired roughly 150 years ago, the messages conveyed through his leadership as the “honest” president still loudly ring true today.
Lincoln’s time period was saturated with a Congress firmly divided on a contentious issue with neither side willing to compromise, and Kushner illustrates their contempt for each other through chilling arguments on the floor of the House. Obviously modern American politics is still inundated with a disturbing lack of bipartisanship, and Kushner seems to critique the gap between present parties while optimistically presenting the hope that politicians can put aside their differences for the advancement of the nation. Though the film is categorized as a period historical drama, Lincoln is very much a film that speaks to the existing society.
The central flaw in Kushner’s script, which prevents Spielberg’s film from reaching that high echelon of classic cinema, is the story’s abrupt completion. Kushner spends the entire film painting an exquisite portrait of Lincoln through the complicated circumstances that surrounded him, yet brings the film to a strange, quick halt. Given a great opportunity to end the story with an impactful emotional punch, a writer of Kushner’s capabilities could have easily incorporated thematic metaphors into Lincoln’s sudden murder and avoided a conclusion that falls flat and lacks true meaning. Lincoln builds to a climactic point of national and cinematic innovation but fails to move beyond this summit.
Nevertheless, the ending only minimally tarnishes the overall success of the film, mainly because Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln is utterly astounding. Viewers have come to expect Day-Lewis’ characteristic transformative portrayals with each role the actor takes on. Day-Lewis has quickly become one of the most respected actors of our time, and this interpretation marks what could easily be the best of his career. To the undiscerning eye, he becomes almost unrecognizable, a testament to Day-Lewis’ dedication to the character and the excellent makeup team. The voice Day-Lewis breathes into Lincoln is high-pitched, which might seem jarring, but instead humanizes the larger-than-life myth of the president. Day-Lewis remains subdued in certain scenes yet forceful in others, displaying the complexities of Lincoln’s character, and his facial expressions beautifully depict the tired and stressed nature of leading a nation. Amazingly, Day-Lewis matches the mannerisms our culture has learned about Lincoln, while personalizing the representation to fit his strengths. And the immense burden thrust upon him during the Civil War is visualized through the supporting figures Kushner chose to highlight. Each supporting cast member also gives a strong performance, especially Tommy Lee Jones as Lincoln’s rival Thaddeus Stevens.
Spielberg’s Lincoln might not be the conventional biopic, but it still expresses huge volumes about the 16th president. With a wonderfully written script and a monumental performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, the film honors one of the greatest American figures while underscoring the consequences of prolonged partisan tension.