There is a pivotal scene in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” that comes about half way through the film. Lincoln (Daniel Day Lewis) is sitting in a telegraph office, he is alone but for two telegraph dispatchers Homer and Sam played by Adam Driver and David Homer Bates. Lincoln is at a crossroads himself where he must decide on pressing the thirteenth amendment, which would abolish slavery, or agree to a proposed peace to the Civil War which was now in its bloody fourth year. In the scene Lincoln is talking to his young dispatchers wherein he evokes the geometrical theory of Euclid.
LINCOLNEuclid’s first common notion is this: “Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.”
Homer doesn’t get it; neither does Sam.
LINCOLN (CONT’D)That’s a rule of mathematical reasoning. It’s true because it works; has done and always will do. In his book, Euclid says this is “self-evident.”
D’you see? There it is, even in that two-thousand year old book of mechanical law: it is a self- evident truth that things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. We begin with equality. That’s the origin, isn’t it? That balance, that’s fairness, that’s justice.
After this speech, Lincoln has made the decision and decides to send a telegram to delay the peace talks in order for the amendment to go through. The speech itself is an illustration of the kind of man Lincoln was, someone who spoke through stories and anecdotes all the time to get his point across, but the speech also works as a thematic piece to what the film is trying to get across. The film has many of these speeches in the film, and Lincoln/Day Lewis speaks them in a very warm tone, that of an enthusiastic storyteller, if Lincoln weren’t President, he probably would’ve made one of the greatest storytellers of all time.
“Lincoln” the film is an illustration of what made Abraham Lincoln such a great man, it’s not a full bio pic, nor is it a full portrait of who he was, instead it’s more of a story about politics, and the people who were with Lincoln as his advisors and associates. It’s not just the king, but the men behind the throne.
“Lincoln” is based in part on the brilliant book “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which is the story of Lincoln’s entire political career and his carefully selected cabinet members which were full of both allies and enemies who Lincoln recruited in order to have a balanced group of differing opinions on how the country should be run. As the book illustrates beautifully, most of Lincoln’s cabinet grew to have a shared respect and admiration for him by the end of his administration.
“Lincoln” the film takes a microcosm from the book about the passing of the thirteenth amendment, and creates a taut political drama behind its passing. It begins near Lincoln’s second term as President in January 1865, although his historical emancipation proclamation which claimed the freedom of slaves, has been passed, Lincoln sets his sights on abolishing slavery for good by putting through this amendment to the house which must now be voted on. The core of the film is how Lincoln and his co-conspirators gather enough votes for the amendment to be passed.
His chief right hand man is his secretary of state William Seward (David Strathairn) who appoints a few shady chief negotiators (Tim Blake Nelson, John Hawks, and James Spader) to bribe, coerce, and negotiate some men from the opposition party to vote yes on the amendment. Lincoln himself dips his hand in some political dealings of his own most, memorably with his leading critic Rep. Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), a radical Senator who wants nothing more than to see slaves free, but also has an, outrageous tone that enfuriates the opposition, something Lincoln wants to temper in order to procure more votes from them.
Also at Lincoln’s side is his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field), who is seen as her husband’s social butterfly, creating elaborate parties at the White House, but also someone who is deeply troubled, grieving over the death of their young son, who passed away from an illness, and is afraid to see her oldest son Robert (Joseph Gordon Levitt) wanting to join the Union Army and be lost to the War. Despite a few domestic scenes all of which are very effective, particularly the ones performed by Day Lewis and Field, the main drive stays on the passing of the amendment.
This is a very talky film probably the most talky in Spielberg’s long career as a filmmaker. The script and the dialogue is literate and poetic containing some of the best words found in a modern film. Written by Tony Kushner (who wrote the groundbreaking play “Angels in America”, as well as co-writer for another highly politically charged Spielberg film “Munich”), the words do service for Lincoln the storyteller, weaving allegorical tales throughout the film, but also serve to show how articulate a President he truly was. The best scenes are the quiet ones with Lincoln in contemplation, or in conversation, he was a great conversationalist and humourist as it has been documented. Kushner also fuses his language with some of Lincoln’s own, and it melds beautifully, it would be hard to know which exactly are some of the things Lincoln said. This is probably highlighted best in Lincoln’s cabinet meeting….
I can’t listen to this anymore. I can’t accomplish a goddamn thing of any worth until we cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war! I wonder if any of you or anyone else knows it. I know! I need this! This amendment is that cure! We’ve stepped out upon the world stage now. Now! With the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilled to afford us this moment now! Now! Now! And you grouse so and heckle and dodge about like pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters.
Many of the speeches in the film are tailor-made actor showcases, but they are written and delivered as if by a Shakespearean company of actors, you revel in its eloquence, if only more films could be as literate as this.
As Lincoln, Daniel Day Lewis commands the screen, he truly immerses himself as the famed President, at one point, I was so lost in the performance, I couldn’t see the actor at all and only the man he was playing. Yet despite the greatness of his performance, and unlike his towering turns in films like “Gangs of New York” and “There Will be Blood”, Day Lewis isn’t the whole show here, and he doesn’t dwarf his fellow actors with his abilitily. Each actor is given moments to shine, Jones in particular who bites through Tony Kushner’s words with devilish glee, and Sally Field is a great scene partner for Day Lewis matching him beat for beat in their bedroom scenes. David Strathairn keeps his title as one of the most valuable supporting actors in any movie he’s in, and James Spader’s Mr. Bilbo is such a memorable creation, just a movie about him would be worth seeing.
The look of the film is unlike most of Spielberg’s works, although we do get his signature light through a window pane moment, most of the film is muted in dark colors of grey and black, Spielberg with his collaborator Januz Kaminski keep the proceedings dim to compliment the backroom deals going on in Washington. Yet Spielberg does let light in such as in the House chamber where the Senators meet to vote on the bill. The billowing of the Senators and lightness of the room calls to mind the optimistic look at politics much like it is seen in “Mr. Smith goes to Washington”.
Indeed this being a Spielberg film, the optimism does come through despite the dark dealings and political underhandings going through, it is done for a noble cause, yet it isn’t a cookie cutter look at the ends justifying the means. The film stays ambiguous with the state of the country after the passing of the amendment which doesn’t shy away from the people who were opposed to it. Some of the opposition are humanized, mostly seen as people who have lost loved ones in the war. One man even admits he is a prejudiced man but it is something he can’t help.
“Lincoln” was a labor of love for Spielberg, who wanted to make it since the 1990s, and he structures it beautifully. Spielberg has always been a master of the invisible camera, which basically illustrates that he rarely finds the need to show off. Yet Spielberg is always a master of knowing what a scene is about and knows how to cover one while making it cinematically compelling. He usually isn’t given enough credit for creating films as different from the next, yet if you look at Lincoln, you would have trouble finding one of Spielberg’s films that fits with its aesthetic.
I have found myself surprised at how many times I’ve seen “Lincoln” since it was released four years ago. I hate the term “prestige” or “Oscar Bait” when it comes to films like this, it seems to diminish it a bit as a film only made just to win awards. “Lincoln” creates a world of politics that does not get seen very often in film. It remains intriguing for its simplicity of storytelling, its magnetic performances, and pitch perfect dialogue that not only matches the time, but is used to illustrate the film’s themes and metaphors.
I think “Lincoln” is one of Spielberg’s best films, it showcases how refined a filmmaker he really is, and also his dependence on great collaborators such as his cinematographer Kaminski, and his screenwriter Kushner. Above all it’s with Day Lewis, who creates the Lincoln I think Spielberg wanted to convey, the wise, thoughtful, articulate President. It’s never a hero-worship film, those movies have been made before, we never forget Lincoln was a human being above all, and with this film, we get a better understanding about why he was so great.