Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a work of sufficient richness to instantly invite repeat viewings. It is a history film that dares to pile on verbal and visual details thickly and rapidly enough that a second viewing may be necessary simply to register all that is going on. Dropped right into the heart of the Congress of 1865, you scarcely have time to be introduced to the representatives busily attempting to drown each other out, or to be given much backstory on the alliances and resentments in play in one private parley after another, as Lincoln and his operatives try every form of arm-twisting and patronage short of outright bribery to enlist political support. This is a different sort of piling-on than what was evident in Spielberg’s recent The Adventures of Tintin (2011), where effects were rolled out with a kind of desperation—if you didn’t like that bit of head-spinning trickery, than how about this one, or this?
The combination of Lincoln’s many elements—there are scores of historically identifiable speaking roles, including conservative Republican Francis Preston Blair, future White House memoirist Elizabeth Keckley, Confederate vice-president Alexander Stephens, and Lincoln’s secretary John Nicolay—is effected with a deliberation and exactness that consistently skirts the abyss of empty heart-stirring sentiment, the favorite destination of patriotic epics. If the film is moving it is because it is also, by virtue of Tony Kushner’s intricately constructed screenplay, so dry and precise about the political practicalities that are its real subject matter. Lincoln avoids any suggestion of epic; the Civil War is reduced to a close and ugly hand-to-hand skirmish and a battlefield strewn with corpses. Restricting themselves almost entirely to the first five weeks of 1865, Spielberg and Kushner show us for once a Lincoln too busy working to spend much time cutting a sublime figure.
The film is not a demystification of Lincoln. The stations-of-the-cross aura that has often hovered around dramatizations of his life is replaced here by a more detached and analytical surveying of circumstances—a surveying that yet manages to instill an authentic wonderment. In Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance—or, more properly, wholesale inhabitation—Lincoln is made more mysterious than ever. It is at once a deeply and uncannily consistent portrayal and a fantastically technical performance with regard to details of gait and gesture—and, above all, voice, since Day-Lewis has emulated historical accounts of Lincoln’s sometimes “shrill, piping, and unpleasant” way of talking.
Lincoln’s speech rhythms—his joking interruptions and persuasive self-deprecating feints and sudden bursts of angry contradiction—become the perceptible manifestation of how he manages to exercise his will in the face of every kind of human obstruction. His words seem to emerge from a silence that pervades all his outward actions, as if every time he spoke he were also measuring his distance from other people. To the rural accents of that solo voice is opposed the bellowing chaos of Congress in session, with the likes of Fernando Wood (Lee Pace), the Congressman from New York who led the fight against the Thirteenth Amendment, and his archrival, the abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) indulging to the maximum the nineteenth-century taste for rhetorical vituperation.
Spielberg and Kushner have managed to make a film to the measure of its protagonist by making Lincoln about so much more than its subject. American history films from Griffith and DeMille onwards have in general been tailored for an audience presumed to be incapable of absorbing much information or complexity of motive, and the first casualty of this radical oversimplification has been any attempt to show the glowingly invoked “democratic process” in actual detail. Politics, for the most part, has been something that happens off-screen, either too tedious or too depressingly cynical for its mechanisms to be exposed in their full particulars; presidents are more likely to be shown in moments of public grandeur than in scenes of backroom horse-trading. Perhaps it is the era of cable news, with its permanent theater of politics, that has made it possible to engage more vigorously with the kind of historical detail in which Lincoln revels. An audience that has endured the protracted dramas surrounding the passage of the Affordable Care Act and the raising of the debt ceiling, and followed the statistics of political polling as if it were a new national pastime, is certainly ready to contemplate the overt and covert tactics involved in the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Kushner’s script is more than just elegant in its compression and exposition. It is steeped in the traditions of a political dramaturgy that were familiar to Shakespeare and Schiller but that have not often been practiced in American historical films. The moments when Lincoln quotes Hamlet (“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams”), Banquo (“If you can look into the seeds of time, / And say which grain will grow, and which will not”), and Falstaff (“We have heard the chimes at midnight, master Shallow”) are a way of nodding to that ancient bond of theater and politics. Acknowledging the need at every turn for shorthand and quick characterization to fit the events into the available time, the film never pretends that the whole story has been laid out.
The Birth of a Nation (1915) came to mind more than once while I was watching Lincoln. D.W. Griffith’s work had such an effect on what American movies would be and more specifically what American history movies would be. If movies are indeed “history written with lightning” (in the apocryphal phrase attributed to Woodrow Wilson on first viewing Birth of a Nation), then the scorch marks they leave take a long time to wear away. Aside from the aesthetic mastery of Griffith’s filmmaking, there were his ostentatious historiographic flourishes, his footnoted intertitles, his claims of authoritative recreation. Spielberg and Kushner seem to want to meet Griffith on his home ground for a rectification of accounts, never more so than in the treatment of Thaddeus Stevens (the basis for Griffith’s tragic arch-villain Austin Stoneman). The comic motif of Stevens’s wig sitting uneasily on his bald pate echoes a similar gag in Griffith’s film, and when his mulatto housekeeper and mistress, with whom he had a relationship of many years, makes her appearance toward the end of the film (played by Law & Order regular S. Epatha Merkerson), she is a profoundly sympathetic emissary from a then unimaginable future rather than the vengeful histrionic figure of Griffith’s film (the object, as an intertitle explains, of “the great leader’s weakness that is to blight a nation”). In fact, Stevens’s happy domestic life is pointedly contrasted with Lincoln’s family troubles, laid out in a series of painful scenes with his wife (Sally Field) and eldest son (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
Historians will no doubt find ample occasion to pick apart the details of the film and to question its omissions and emphases and imputed motives. It can at least be said that Lincoln leaves room for such questioning. Its approach is open, not closed. Whatever we see and hear suggests other perspectives, other impinging forces, matter for a thousand other films that have not yet been made. The Reconstruction era, a period whose cinematic representation has been pretty much pre-empted by the Confederate pieties of The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, would be a good place to start. Not the least of Lincoln’s virtues is to suggest such possibilities.