Lincoln is two movies, which barely overlap. One is a procedural story of rounding up votes by hook or by crook to pass the 13th Amendment to the constitution (the one that abolishes slavery). The other movie is a character study about a cipher of a man, a tall politician with a penchant for folksy anecdotes. I’m a bit of a Lincoln enthusiast, and was thrilled to see Daniel Day-Lewis (and screenwriter Tony Kushner) capture Lincoln’s warmth, his humor, his melancholy, his strategic mind — and his reputed high-pitched voice.
Sure, other actors have gained weight for a role. But Daniel Day-Lewis is the first to grow taller. Clever use of perspective and apple boxes is my guess for how they did it, but it was so good I couldn’t see any seams.
Both of the movies inside of Lincoln are excellent. But they don’t mix well. I think this is a mostly a structural issue with Tony Kushner’s script, rather than with individual scenes, which are generally excellent. Not that there won’t be some Oscar voters turned off. A few scenes, including the very first scene of the film, are genuinely terrible. (Soldiers of both races theatrically recite the text of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address back to him???? And the scene between Lincoln and Ulysses Grant, as well as the scene where Lincoln and Mary Todd discuss her legacy, are also examples of inelegant self-aware screenwriting. How often do people in your life discuss with uncharacteristic insight how history will remember them?)
The filmmakers offer us a vision of Lincoln’s famous foreboding dream — which is interpreted as being about passing the 13th Amendment by Lincoln’s wife (Mary Todd). Historically, it has been interpreted as a vision of his own impending assassination. But for a while, the movie seems to buy Mary Todd’s thesis. It connects the story of Lincoln and his family to the ending of the war which is in turn connected to the 13th Amendment fight. When elder son Robert insists on enlisting there is new urgency from Mary Todd towards her husband to end the war, and young Tad Lincoln is obsessed with photo plates of slaves and struts around the White House wearing some miniature Union Blues.
When (spoiler alert) the 13th Amendment passes, a great deal of air goes out of the film, and so does Tommy Lee Jones’ Thaddeus Stevens, the film’s moral center. Kushner and Spielberg choose to take the story all the way to Lincoln’s assassination, without doing justice to dramatizing the assassination. If I had to guess, they were concerned about glorifying a horrifying crime. (Don’t ask them what they think of Oliver Stone’s JFK. Nor should you think too hard about a tyrannical speech Lincoln gives to his cabinet, about being clothed in immense war powers.) But since the main emphasis of the film has been on passing the 13th Amendment — to secure Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens’ legacies, we are left searching for a theme.
The arcs of Lincoln’s family seem to be what the filmmakers wish us to follow — showing the news of the assassination through Tad’s eyes, and bringing us the famous moment across the street from Ford’s theater when Lincoln was pronounced dead — “Now he belongs to the ages.” (No showing Seward getting stabbed, by the way. A scene that, judging by Munich‘s raw violence, could have been powerful.)
I know director Steven Spielberg will come in for a lot of heat for his sentimentalism, but the visual scenes in this film — Lincoln walking alone in a hallway, a wheelbarrow of limbs dumped unceremoniously into a pit, Thaddeus Stevens crawling into bed with his biracial mistress — pack just as much wallop as Kushner’s bombastic lines.
So, in the end, the dream perhaps was about the place Lincoln was going alone. Some sort of afterlife. Some place where there is charity towards all and malice towards none, as he says in his second inaugural address, a speech which the movie, unable to end, flashes back to, closing limply on Daniel Day-Lewis’ authentically weakly-delivered version of it. Like another Daniel Day-Lewis film, Gangs of New York, the plot of Lincoln is over-stuffed and whimpers when it should climax. Still, there is too much saucy verbiage and period detail to enjoy here. With malice towards none and charity towards all, I heartily recommend it.