Abe Is Enough: ‘Lincoln’ Emancipates Spielberg From His Usual Tricks

Four score and seven years ago, it was 1925. That’s not really relevant, but it seems difficult to write a review of Lincoln without including the man’s most famous phrase, even if not that many people even know how many years “four score” is, and even if that’s the least important aspect of his Gettysburg address (and yet the most enduring).

So then, with that out of the way, let’s talk about a movie that is only partially about the events of 1864-1865, at least on a subtextual level. Technically, there’s no reason Steven Spielberg couldn’t have directed Lincoln a decade ago, in exactly the same way. But it wouldn’t have been the same movie — not by a long shot. Lincoln is a curious thing — a movie that takes place 150 years ago that might be more relevant now than it ever could have been before.

Okay, sure, a Lincoln movie during the 60’s might have been pretty relevant, too. But there’s something particularly moving about the one that comes in 2012, just a couple of weeks after we reelected Barack Obama. When Lincoln opens, Honest Abe has just been reelected too, and the men have a few things in common. Abraham Lincoln could be featured on posters emblazoned with the words “Hope” and “Change,” too. A Lincoln movie in 2008 could have had a similar impact, but there’s something about the fact that we kept both men around for a second term that is particularly poignant. Lincoln is all about moving forward, making progress — but only the progress you can afford to make at the time. Lincoln knew, as Obama surely knows, that you can only ask for so much at a time without losing the majority.I can only guess how much Obama was in Tony Kushner’s mind while writing this movie — the post-election release date isn’t an accident, but no one, of course, knew for sure who would come out as victor of the 2012 election. Seeing Lincoln with Mitt Romney as our president would’ve been a bitter pill to swallow, but instead the movie takes on a narrative that can’t possibly have been entirely planned. We’re always moving forward, even though we occasionally take a few steps back. Seven score and seven years ago we abolished slavery, but balked at the idea that a black man could vote. Now there’s one in the White House.

And yet, for as far as we’ve come in that sense, we are still having the same debate regarding other issues — in particular at the moment, marriage equality. Not everyone will read into that message upon seeing Lincoln, since the race issue is most obviously front and center. But the irony is there. We’re still learning the lessons Abe himself was trying to teach us so long ago, and while we’ve come far, we’re still working at it. The message of Lincoln is one of hope, and one that wouldn’t have worked had Romney won the election. It’s so obvious now, to nearly all Americans, that slavery is wrong, and yet other prejudices stand. If we’re to believe what Lincoln preaches, those too will continue to be challenged, and eventually overcome. But for now, we can surprisingly identify with the core debate at the heart of Lincoln, even though the matter at hand is long since settled. The conversations in Lincoln are not unlike those we’ve been having for the past few years.But that’s all subtext in a movie that’s pretty straightforward. Lincoln is an obvious contender for Best Picture and Best Actor, with Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field also likely to be recognized. It’s probably unnecessary to extoll the virtues of Daniel Day-Lewis’ uncanny transformation into Abraham Lincoln, but how can you not? The combination of his makeup and acting is, quite simply, astonishing in its resemblance to Lincoln, or at least, how we imagine him to be. The other period details all feel just as right. Lincoln is sumptuous as nearly all Spielberg’s historical films are, though it’s not quite as gussied up as War Horse. That film was an obvious pastiche, the most Spielbergian movie imaginable, while Lincoln is a bit of a departure the old pro — talkier and with much less spectacle. Sure, there are some very earnest moments, a couple that are borderline sappy. But his direction is mostly invisible, letting Day-Lewis and Lincoln steal the show.

Lincoln is talky, almost entirely concerned with the politics surrounding the passing of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. There are a couple of juicy scenes, like a thrilling scream-off between Abe and Mary Todd, and another tense moment between Lincoln and his son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). But mostly, it’s politics and speechifying and earnest sentiment, with a lot of moments of wry humor thrown in to lighten the mood. Abraham Lincoln is fond of telling stories, and even as the audience, we may grow weary of them at a certain point. Spielberg’s Lincoln never misses an opportunity to say something profound.

Luckily, as written by Kushner, these moments do tend to be fairly profound, and insightful. Lincoln isn’t a terribly deep movie, as far as the characters go — most characters, we never see more than one side to. Taken at face value, it might not have much impact. But with the added implications imported from 2012, it ends up being about quite a lot, and on a technical level, it’s a masterpiece. Certain shots already feel iconic.

Will Lincoln sweep the Oscars? It may be a little too slow-moving for that. I’m not sure how much the general public will be into the detailed politics, lots of talking strategy in a room, with little in the way of conventional action. (Plus, roughly half the audience that voted for Romney may feel slightly uncomfortable about having slavery supporters as their proxy.) The cinematography and art direction and such will be serious contenders, and of course it’s hard to imagine Day-Lewis not winning Best Actor.

Thoughts?

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