I very much hope you will get to see Steven Spielberg’s recently released tour de force of a film, “Lincoln.” In fact, I would say do not miss it, if there is any way you can help it. It has to be among the very best films of the year, and one of a small handful of the best movies that I personally have ever seen. Before reading any further, however, I feel as though I ought to give a bit of a spoiler alert, inasmuch as I do discuss some of the actions, feelings, and motivations of a few of the characters in the film. So, enough said, hopefully, in case you have not seen the film yet and would prefer not to proceed.
But now, back to the film: the topic, the man, the history, the story, the drama, the acting, the production values are all absolutely of the highest caliber. I do not venture to use the word masterpiece often or lightly, but this particular film has got to come close to the definition of that sometimes overused word. And don’t forget to take a handkerchief along with you, or at least a few Kleenex, because unless I miss my guess you may find yourself weeping more than once. I know I did. Sometimes you weep for sadness, sometimes for joy, and sometimes just for the profound depth of the emotional impact of the story itself. And you will see, if you did not know (which no doubt you already did, but now in a more visceral and personal way than ever before), what an enormous and truly towering historical figure Abraham Lincoln was.
The story itself centers around Lincoln’s iron-willed determination to get the thirteenth amendment passed, freeing the slaves in the United States, and in any territories held by the United States, forever. He had, of course, previously issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but that was done only as part of the extraordinary powers Lincoln had taken on during the course of the Civil War. That act had to do with the confiscation of so-called “property” in the warring states. It goes without saying that these were people we are talking about, not property, and Lincoln himself never thought of black people as property, but one of the many lessons of the story, and of the movie, is that sometimes you have to do things which appear to be, and to an extent actually are, partial measures. It’s got to do with attempting to accomplish what is possible in the historical moment, or with what can be thought of as laying the groundwork for something bigger and grander and more sweeping, which we hope can then itself be brought about at some point in the future.
Epitomizing this particular struggle are two figures, first of all, the president, himself, and secondly the great abolitionist member of the House of Representatives, Thaddeus Stevens. Initially Stevens wants all, everything he has fought his entire life for and what he believes in with all his heart, while Lincoln realizes that there are times when a variation of the best and the highest is the most that can be done in the real world, and particularly in the gritty tug of war that always typifies representational democracy. Indeed, it is this struggle, and the whole messy drama emblematic of the Republican and the Democratic positions (the former party, the good guys, curiously, in the historical context, while the latter are the ultra conservatives), which is at the heart of the drama.
I won’t go on much more about the plot, lest I say too much, but you will see that the movie is an engrossing depiction of an enormously important turning point in American history. And the acting! Daniel Day Lewis is clearly at the pinnacle of his art and craft in his portrayal of Lincoln. And it is such an immensely human portrait of the man that you will wish to God you could have known him. Sally Field, too, does a marvelous job as the long-suffering and emotionally wrought Mary Todd Lincoln, who is unable, try as she might, to fully recover from the tragic loss of their ten year old son two years earlier. Tommy Lee Jones excels, as well, as Stevens, the grumpy, cantankerous, but high-minded champion for the freedom and full equality of an enslaved people, and Joseph Gordon Levitt is wonderful as Lincoln’s eldest son, who longs to take on what he feels to be his rightful role in the great contest playing itself out on the field of battle. Virtually every other actor in the film, whether that person has a large or a small part to play, is compelling and convincing in their various roles.
Two other things about the film also struck me. First of all, the language soars. Lincoln’s, it goes without saying of course, in particular, both in regard to his public speech, so well known to all, but even in what he has to say during more private moments. The same is true of some of the other characters in the drama, as well. They speak, in fact, as did people in the nineteenth century, a time when spoken language, as well as the epistolary arts, were admired and flourished, far removed from today’s briefest of emails with their accompanying emoticons, or the twisted twaddle of tweets. And it is a delight to listen in.
The other thing that amazes is the quality of light in the film. Apparently, Spielberg made a quite conscious decision to shoot it emphasizing the way people actually would have experienced life at the time, in other words, in a world lit only by natural light, or by candlelight, or gasoline lamps. The often semi-dark scenes emphasize the dusky and occasionally ambiguous emotionality of the story, and even, God help us, soften some of the horror of the scenes of war. At home later on, I found myself half wishing to turn the lights off, and let the twilight drift softly in through the windows, eschewing what felt like the harsh glare of electrically generated lighting. Indeed, many things about the film linger on in the mind, far into the night and into the next few days.
I think you will see that this is a movie not to be missed, and if it is not a top contender for best film at this year’s Oscars, then I do not know how to judge movies.