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The Presence of Greatness

by Laura Leon on November 20, 2012

Directed by Steven Spielberg


How to make a movie about Abraham Lincoln? What portion of a life, a presidency, an immense political footprint, would you focus on? These had to be questions director Steven Spielberg thought long and hard about, and his answer—the last few months of Lincoln’s presidency—is sound, both historically and cinematically. From January 1865 onward, Lincoln worked feverishly to end the Civil War while at the same time, legislatively terminate the institution of slavery in the United States. Both struggles aptly illustrate the great man’s moral integrity as well as his ability to harness seemingly disparate forces into a unified front.

Day-Lewis as LINCOLN

Based in part on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s A Team of Rivals and written for the screen by Tony Kushner, Lincoln is suitably (for its subject) epic in scope while offering, often surprisingly, an intimate examination of the pensive soul behind the statesman. Daniel Day-Lewis, in the title role, forsakes our collective “memory” of the 16th president, which would be Henry Fonda (who starred in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln). Known for really getting under the skins of the characters he’s played, Day-Lewis dons the characteristics of Lincoln like a well-worn and beloved sweater. His affection for the role is evident, but it never becomes aggrandizing or fawning. Particularly appealing is how the actor taps into Lincoln’s deep reserves of thought and reflection; by all accounts, this was a man admirably heading a nation at war and a fractured family life, while all the while deeply ensconced in an inner conversation with his demons and life’s larger questions. This Lincoln is aged and grizzled, his walk is almost a stutter step—a nice bit of humanity.

As Lincoln and his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) attempt to unite the rabid abolitionists with those forces more concerned with ending the war and preserving the union, Republican party kingpin Frank Blair (Hal Holbrook) seeks to get the president to negotiate peace with representatives of the Confederacy. Herein lies Lincoln’s great conundrum—he wants the war to end, but, if the 13th Amendment is to pass, he can’t let it end too soon. It’s a moral question that weighs heavily on him, especially when his oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) defies his parents’ wishes and enlists, or when he talks with veterans of terrifying battles such as that which opens the movie.

Spielberg is blessed with an outstanding cast, including James Spader, whose flamboyant lobbyist provides a delightful, and needed, bit of levity throughout. Tommy Lee Jones, as abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens, could steal the movie, something you keep waiting for him to do, and yet he reins it in, making his turn all the more riveting. Also quite good is Jackie Earle Haley, playing Confederate vice president Alexander Stevens. Most Northerners would have no idea who Stevens was; Haley is a sharp personification of this sickly but politically wily individual. Highest kudos go to Sally Field, an actress whom I’ve never really liked but who, as Mary Lincoln, delivers an astounding performance of a troubled yet sometimes canny First Lady. While the scenes of political jousting and legislative maneuvering are crisp and fun, those between the Lincolns, as they argue while getting ready for bed, reveal profound and heartbreaking realities of spouses who have battled long and felt the loss of love and respect, or, as was the case with Abe and Mary, suffered the loss of a child.

Despite the wise choice of time frame and events, and the excellent cast, Spielberg does the film no favors with a series of stupid decisions. Most notable, the ever-intrusive soundtrack—can John Williams please retire already?—which rears its fervid aural head whenever the director thinks we’re too dense to know to feel sadness or awe. Spielberg also doesn’t waste a chance to cinematically beatify his subject, as evidenced most ridiculously in the final moments of the movie, in which the just deceased president is seen as part of a candle’s flame—such schmaltz is beneath contempt. If it were solely up to Spielberg, I think that Lincoln would have been presented as He Who Walks on Water; thankfully, Day-Lewis instead imbues and buttresses him with a sense of reality and human frailty.