Lincoln debuts mid-battle with the gloom, carnage, and anguish. No act of butchery is filtered, evident as a soldier – forced down by the foot of another – drowns in murky water. I am reminded of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan as I watch this. It is piercing, as it should be. What follows is the introduction of a man of stature, worthy of the awestruck flatter of the soldiers that surround him. They echo his words, resembling the myriad of reiterations in the centuries to follow. It is a grand gesture to the many so invigorated by the words of one man that they must repeat it. It is a grand gesture to the many so inspired by the actions of one that they must follow in suit.
And that’s basically what this film is – a fanciful ode to a great time and to a great man. As best put by film reviewer Damian Hondares, it “is not necessarily a biographical film so much as it is a historical analysis” – contrary to what the title insinuates (Lancaster Online). It is, in no way, a gritty photograph of what really happened. It is a movie after all. The scenes are too rhetorical and too majestic. The scenes are manipulated, unflawed shots in a contemplative tinge. But it’s all about what they represent and the deeper meaning behind the splendor of it all.
The eyes never leave Daniel Day Lewis, who is Abraham Lincoln. The strings of white hair are seemingly carefully placed to accentuate the outline of a man who today resides, many-feet tall and wide – in his own memorial. He certainly caters to my imagining of Lincoln and embodies the gentle but regal austerity I attribute to the sixteenth president of the United States. Much of the movie is played on a different battlefield. It is like and unlike war – requiring more strategy and more facetiousness. It is a clash of words and of intellect for legislation. It shows politics at its best and at its worst.
Steven Spielberg ventures into uncharted territory with Lincoln, at least to me. Many motion pictures stage the gruesome battle, but few portray the behind-the-scenes chatter. And because this is the first on screen likening, that I have seen, of the back and forth negotiations for the Thirteenth Amendment, I am more inclined to believe it. The dialogue is sharp and highbrow, and it is what I would expect from this time and from these individuals – who compose the highest stations of this society. The divisions between the reds and blues are obvious and prominent in the tones of distinguished men and women. I believe that it depicts history, albeit more glossy than what is expected.
But I am convinced the movie tries its best to be as exact when it explores what really happens. It does not depict an uncompromising Lincoln. It does not depict an infallible man. It shows a conflicted man, whose internal confusions and deliberations seem to resonate from his person and from the screen. It shows a tired man, whose influence has been increasingly barraged by the war. And you believe it, because Day-Lewis, Spielberg, and company have done much to make you believe. There is not an artifact out of place. The other players really did look the part. It is evident that the wardrobe of even the most obscure individual, lost by the edge of the frame, was selected with the utmost effort and scrutiny.
Moreover, Sally Field as Mary Todd, I must say, is enchanting. She portrayed Mrs. Lincoln more fiercely than I had imagined. She, like the other actors, bears the look of another time. Their movements embody the prim and proper ways, both in speak and in action. It is a historical interpretation, certainly not an exact play-by-play of what happened. It is a Spielberg version, and the happenings are certainly skewed to adhere to his lenses.
In the books of history, the debate over the abolition of slavery requires a deserved and necessary mention. But in Spielberg’s Lincoln, it is drawn out through an art form. We hear the arguments and we see the frustrations. We witness the compromises. And that’s what I took from watching this film. I saw it as a nod to what really happened. It reveals to us why this president is so especially revered, and the trials he underwent to attain a way out from this horrid darkness. This film told me to appreciate all of that, and that is something a textbook cannot do.
It is no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed this film. Film critic Roger Ebert called the film “reverent” and I certainly agree (Far Flungers). It made us contemplate about a more complicated time, a time that deserves learning about. I will not say it was not the least bit pretentious but I will not say I did not appreciate the pretension. Critic A.O. Scott notes that after the opening scene, the movie “settles down into what looks like the familiar pageantry and speechifying of costume drama” (New York Times). I agree that there were embellishments but as aforementioned, it was expected. That’s not what this movie was about, however. It is a beautiful imagining of a string of historical happenings that does justice to the gravity of what happened. It wasn’t supposed to make you feel like that was how it all looked; it was supposed to make you appreciate.