There have been biopics that I’ve seen and wondered, “Why did they even make a movie about this guy?” I’m thinking particularly of Public Enemies (2009) about John Dillinger. By the end, I had absolutely no interest in reading up on Dillinger on Wikipedia or anything else. Establishing the person’s importance is central to a biopic. But the era and moment matters too. For those individuals that were less personally dramatic, the biopic has to either put them in an interesting historical context (The Queen (2006)) or overplay their personal foibles and cast an A-lister such that they justify a film (The Iron Lady (2011), J. Edgar (2011)). It’s odd that the crown jewel of biopics–interesting people in interesting times–is so rarely taken advantage of. We get John Adams (2008) but no Benjamin Franklin. When the Lincoln (2012) was announced in 2005, it looked like someone was finally going to take a shot. Seven years later, they finally pulled the trigger.
The Civil War is coming to a brutal end. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, much of the South has been laid to waste. But President Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) wants to put away the slavery issue for all time with a constitutional amendment. His team is very mixed on the issue, with those highly supportive like William Seward (David Strathairn), a personal friend and Lincoln’s Secretary of State, but most were ambivalent and saw the end of the war as the crucial issue. The Senate had passed the Thirteenth Amendment, but for nearly a year it foundered in the House. Democrats and Copperhead Republicans, like Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), virulently opposed the amendment. But as things stood, Lincoln needed twenty votes to switch in the House, mostly from Democrats. What followed was a little light corruption, with the help of Democrats from Albany like Mr. Bilbo (James Spader), and good ol’ fashion persuading of “Radicals” like Thaddeus Stephens (Tommy Lee Jones) to adopt incrementalism as to equal rights. Meanwhile, General Ulysses Grant (Jared Harris) is bringing the war to its close while smoking incessantly and Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) is a bit of nut.
When I saw the first trailer for Lincoln, I almost wept. It looked that bad. Take a look and tell me it doesn’t look and sound like one of those fake trailers where somebody’s cell phone goes off. (As an aside, is someone working on that sketch right now where they play this trailer and at the theater it’s Lincoln’s cell phone that goes off and John Wilkes Booth was just a disgruntled patron?) The insufferably sappy music, the heavy gloss, the platitudinous dialogue all pointed to a flop of epic proportions. I’m pleased to report that while the problems of the trailer are shared by the film, those are absolutely the only problems of the film.
This is a very well-cast film. The film begins with Lincoln talking to some troops (including a disgruntled black soldier played by David Oyelowo) who are so recognizable that I assumed that we were in store for a two-track film of the war and Lincoln’s fight for the Thirteenth Amendment. That’d probably be a better movie (with an additional thirty minutes or so), but we made out alright. Because ultimately, it was a good movie, I’ll start with the things that were unwelcome.
First and foremost, the music from John Williams was so bad I can’t believe it made it to the film. Williams is the living king of soundtracks with Star Wars (1977) being easily the best of all time. And he’s also smart enough to sometimes realize that Aaron Copland would have been a better choice than him. But I swear that through the vast majority of this film, he’s composed the accompaniment to a Josh Groban song. It just saps every moment where the music is audible of gravitas. The director, a fresh face you might not have heard of yet by the name of Steven Spielberg, should have known better. He got the writer of Munich (2005), Tony Kushner, they should have gotten the composer of Munich, too. What’s his name? Oh yeah, John Williams.
Speaking of Spielberg, after War Horse (2011), I was genuinely concerned for this man’s soul. Let’s be honest here, since Jaws (1975), Spielberg has slowly but surely lost his way. He’s got a list of at least thirteen grade-A credits, yes, but from 1975 to 1995 he directed two film disasters (of 13 films) while from 1995 to 2013 he helmed five (arguably six) good or great films (of 13 films). And the gloss of the trailer was unremitting in the movie. If I see another stream of light through dusty air, I may have to notify the Screen Actors Guild of unsafe work practices. And the editing looked almost lazy. There were a number of comic scene interruptions (“Remember the time Thaddeus Stephens totally de-balled that Democrat from Kentucky?”) but one was cut in such a way that led one to believe we were on a linear path. It was an imperfection and admittedly a small one, but this is Lincoln we’re talking about. Oscar-buzz-slash-nomination-guaranteed film of the year. Imperfections are not allowed.
A final irritation came at the ending (and I include the penultimate ending in this as well). We all know how this turns out. We look at our list of amendments and, lo and behold, there lieth the Thirteenth disallowing involuntary servitude. Why play it like Regis Philbin on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?(?) They read out the count. Anyone who has a grip on simple arithmetic knows that they got two-thirds. Give us some respect. This was doubly compounded by the exact same technique used when (spoiler alert) Lincoln is assassinated. You aren’t going to show us the final moments of Lincoln’s life. “Oh, have fun at the theater, Mr. President, don’t forget your gloves.” Go to some other theater where a man runs on stage and shouts, “The President has been shot!” Jaw, floor, as one.
Okay, now for the good bits. The dialogue was very funny and very poignant. Kushner could have gotten some help from Joel and Ethan Coen on holding the line between period and modern meaning, but he did very well. Kushner’s Lincoln has a very dark sense of humor that people around him invariably don’t understand and his wisdom is awe-inspiring. He really captures the content of a great soul. He did allow himself to fall into the maudlin at least twice–especially the voting scene–but this is to be forgiven when such other accomplishments are made. One scene shows this kind of balancing act. Lincoln met with members of the public (in what he called his “bath”) and in a particular meeting, Lincoln asked them if they supported his Thirteenth Amendment, which they did only insofar as it would end the war (that logic being a bit dubious). It made me think of how my grandmother speaks about FDR and how, in their time, the people would basically take anything the President said to be gospel when their own consciences would guide the other way. But it was a highly contrived moment, but was ultimately palatable because of the performances and the glaring meaning ‘behind’ it.
The performances are, obviously, top notch. Day-Lewis, who was expected to do something phenomenal, did so. He is unrecognizable. Tommy Lee Jones and everyone else does very well, but none are really reaching the way Day-Lewis is (and must). Strathairn probably left a lot on the field. His relationship with Lincoln was assumed throughout, but never given a moment where we saw their understanding. Spader was a scene stealer with his role as the corrupting reprobate. Very good work overall.
This film in no way closes the book on Lincoln. There is so much territory undone. His beginnings, his election to the presidency, and the vast majority of the war were untouched. But it did capture a character–and its accuracy is and will be debatable–so well that it will be magnetic. I think most of us are drawn to great, intelligent people and to see someone so great and intelligent on screen will be worth the price of admission.
As a final and controversial point, I wonder aloud whether this film, if released last Friday, may have had an impact on the election. It hovers near blasphemy to suggest it, but the similarities of Obama and the Lincoln portrayed in the film are strong. Someone who is willing to compromise where necessary, wheel and deal where possible, and bring fist to table to demand what is right. It is my image of the man and it makes me wonder whether, as the film inquires, are we fitted to the times we are born into? Watch Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) this December and get back to me.