In my opinion, Steven Spielberg has directed the year’s best picture five times (not counting 2001’s “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” because I consider that to be a Stanley Kubrick film). Those Spielberg motion picture masterpieces are: 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” 1982’s “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” 1985’s “The Color Purple, 1993’s “Schindler’s List,” and 1998’s “Saving Private Ryan.” (Unfortunately, the Motion Picture Academy has seen fit to so honor only “Schindler’s List,” but then they still haven’t given me a ballot so my opinions continue to count for next to nothing.) 2012’s “Lincoln” does not belong on this list.
Having stated that fact (okay, opinion), I do believe “Lincoln” is one of the year’s best films, and one of the year’s most surprising. This isn’t a biography. In fact, its goal isn’t even to show Abraham Lincoln as a great man – but rather, as a great politician. Ask a hundred Americans to describe Lincoln in three words or fewer, and you’re not likely to get one “Great politician” as a response. Ahh, but he was. The ability to manipulate political outcomes is a trait of almost all great U.S. presidents. Franklin Roosevelt had this ability. So did Ronald Reagan. Barack Obama does not.
Specifically, Spielberg’s film covers the last great political maneuver of his life – the fight for congressional passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, that which outlawed slavery. Due to the militarily weakened position of the Confederacy, the easy road would have been to draw up a political compromise with the South. But Lincoln took the difficult road. So repugnant was slavery to Lincoln’s very soul, he opted to continue the war until the House of Representatives (including about 20 lame-duck pro-slavery Democrats) could pass the Amendment, thereby forcing southern states to accept the freedom of African/Americans if they so desired to re-enter the Union. Lincoln’s mastery of the political process is fascinating to watch. He doesn’t “buy” votes, a la Lyndon Johnson, but he knows what he wants and he won’t stop ‘til he gets it. This isn’t an action picture, by any stretch. There are no war scenes. This is a deliberately-paced showpiece of the man who is perhaps our greatest president.
As the president, Daniel Day-Lewis continues his status as our greatest living “invisible” actor. In other words, he’s not Jack Nicholson. When we watch Jack Nicholson, great an actor as he is, we know we’re watching Jack Nicholson. When we watch Daniel Day-Lewis, most people don’t even know who he is, let alone what he looks like without a make-up department. He sinks into his roles more completely than anyone I’ve seen since Peter Sellers. I’ve been watching Day-Lewis for years, and I still don’t feel like I “know” him, the way I do Jack Nicholson and most others. That makes Day-Lewis the perfect actor to portray a president about whom more has been written than any other. We don’t feel like we’re watching Daniel Day-Lewis, but rather Lincoln himself.
The supporting cast is solid, including David Strathairn as Secretary of State William Seward, Hal Holbrook as Republican politician Francis Preston Blair, an almost unrecognizable James Spader as Republican party operative William Bilbo, and the great Tommy Lee Jones as Republican Congressman and abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. But I’ve got to tip my hat to Sally Field, whose portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln straddles the line between independent thinker and emotional basket-case with great ease. Tony Kushner’s screenplay does a great job of showing us an intelligent first lady, still grieving over the loss of their son, Willie, to typhoid fever in 1862. The script treats the first lady with the respect she deserves, and Sally Field hits just the right notes in what could have been a caricature performance.
Kushner’s screenplay also does a great job of showing us Lincoln as a great story-teller, even in times of crisis, and as a man who was always in control of a situation. He might not have raised his voice often, but others knew right where he stood at all times.
Again, I can’t quite put “Lincoln” in the class with the greatest of the Spielberg repertoire. This isn’t a major biographical piece, such as Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.” This is a small film. Were it not for the A-list cast, one might think it’s an independent film. It doesn’t attempt to show us the grand arc of Lincoln’s life, but merely one small part of it. As a political showpiece, I can’t help but hope our current White House occupant watches this. I hope he takes notes. The message would be to stand for something. Don’t compromise away your core beliefs, but be willing to make political sacrifices on behalf of them.