At the end of John Ford's Young Mr Lincoln, "the jack-legged country lawyer" (as played by Henry Fonda) walks up a blighted horizon in the darkening gloom, as thunder rolls in the background, the rough-hewn fence he trudges along taking on the look of military barricades, as the young Lincoln walks with his long stride into the storm of history awaiting him. Steven Spielberg's Lincoln starts where Young... left off—with the sound of thunder over credits, which evolves into cannon-fire before placing us straight on in the middle of the Civil War, blue-on-gray, white-on-black (and the reverses) amid the blood and the mud of the Earth. The shots of the battlefield are tight, confusing, with no sense of place, no horizon—just a frame filled with humans killing each other by any means. No glory. No higher purpose. Just the immediacy of conflict. War is the point at which politics breaks down, and politics is where Spielberg's film is concerned to compare and contrast with today's stew of chicanery, graft, and playing fast and loose with the facts to the purpose of getting your way. 'Twas ever thus, and it was no different in Lincoln's time—they just didn't have cameras documenting everything then.
The approach is as good a starting place as any—that is, ending with Ford's last gambit—linking the two, as both films' main goal is to take the monument out of the man, and put him within reach of attainability, wart and all. The canonization of Lincoln began at the moment of his death with the pronunciation "now he belongs to the ages" and his visage, homely, homespun, ragged sunken and contemplative, has been preserved in nickel, bronze, marble, granite to the point where one can hardly imagine it as flesh and blood anymore.
|Young Mr. Lincoln: walking into a History still to occur.|
What he means may be too pragmatic for them, it's just how he expresses it that confounds. In one exceptional scene—Tony Kushner worked on this script for a long time and it shows—Lincoln explains in minute, often harsh, detail how he employed his newly granted War Powers Act and it comes down to what he thought he could get away with, legally.
His concern, in the waning days of the war, is to pass the 13th Amendment, thereby abolishing slavery, and it takes every trick, every dodge, every promise and appointment in the middle of a lame-duck Congress before the war could end. The timetable is critical: Lincoln has just been re-elected and is riding a wave of popularity; a crucial number of Congressmen are in their last days of their jobs and are looking to their futures and not to the wishes of their constituents; and, if the war ends, the urgency to pass the Amendment will dwindle, amidst the rebuilding of the Nation. Lincoln's Republicans will vote for it, but they need to tone down their rhetoric. The Democrats are dead-set against it, but getting Democrats to agree on anything is like herding cats and Lincoln wants to exploit the party's fractures into fissures.
So, the problem is attacked from several fronts (if only the war had started that way): Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook), prominent Republican and journalist, is sent to the South to negotiate a Southern settlement, which the South is anxious to do (although Lincoln is reluctant). Meanwhile, he wheels and deals with the largesse of power, offering appointments, threats, anything to curry votes, and unleashes a trio of stooge-lobbyists (James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson) to press the flesh and pass the greenbacks (not "officially," though). Votes are critical. On the home-front, Lincoln's son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is back from college, but feeling the weight of his kinship with the President and wants to enlist, which sends wife Mary Todd into another accusatory tailspin as she has barely survived the death of their son, Tad.
Throughout, Lincoln keeps his counsel. but sometimes erupts into spasms of frustration—with "Molly" (as he calls her), the congress and his cabinet, choosing his moments and pressing his advantage, knowing no peace except what he can create for himself.
As good as Day-Lewis is, he's matched by Tommy Lee Jones as House Republican Thaddeus Stevens. In chambers, Stevens sits and fumes, then reaches his limit and bursts out in loud insulting harangues, just in control enough to get his point across, and even smiling tightly—very tightly—when when dressed down by Mary Lincoln over his tight reins over The White House purse strings. Jones finds different ways to make his speeches crackle, while never betraying any sense that the words haven't sprung originally from his head. And Spielberg has given special attention to casting key roles with the like of great character actors like Bruce McGill, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Lee Pace who make their relatively small parts punch out and become memorable.
And Spielberg's eye for painterly detail shines, as Lincoln moves through the gloomy corridors of The White House or sets up an eerie dream sequence for the President. And in one lovely scene, between Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant (Jared Harris), where the war's toll on Lincoln is expressed in Day-Lewis' exhausted eyes and the shadows of a long rank of soldiers trudging in front of a setting sun play across his face.
|You can't see the moving shadows...|
Lincoln is a Full-Price Ticket.
* There's a nice contrast of Licoln delivering a dedication at a flag-raising ceremony that lasts a measly few lines. "That's my speech" he says as he tucks his paper back into his stove-top hat. They can't all be gems.