You might not think that a biopic about our sixteenth President bringing the Civil War to a close is relevant in our modern day and age. But watching director Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film LINCOLN on the eve of the recent government shutdown, I was struck by just how exceedingly relevant and important this film is right now. Many comparisons to Abraham Lincoln were made when President Barack Obama swept into office in 2008—both were from Illinois, both were highly controversial when they assumed office, both were met with extreme venom from southern bureaucrats, and both were charged with uniting a highly divided nation. Obama used Lincoln as the model for his administration, assembling his Cabinet with several of his political opponents– just as Honest Abe had done. It’s obviously not as bad now as it was during the Civil War, but it’s hard to think of another recent time when members of Congress were so openly hostile towards each other. Everyone is doubling down on the extreme end of their ideology, at great risk to the progress of the American people. Watching LINCOLN in this context only further highlights the absolute absurdity of our current situation. In the film, Congress is battling over whether or not to end slavery, but our current government has a fringe faction so rabidly against universal healthcare that it’s willing to turn the lights off on Congress entirely. I’ll stop before I go into full-on political argument mode, but the irony here wasn’t lost on me: then, politicians came together despite extreme opposition for an honorable cause that advanced human rights, but now, politicians are using government as collateral bargaining chips to advance their selfish, misguided and short-sighed interests. This is why LINCOLN needed to be made, to remind us how great we can all be when we all come together to work out our differences, and our leaders encourage us to be the best version of ourselves. Obama may be no Lincoln, but damn it if he isn’t trying.
LINCOLN marks the culmination of decades in development and the realization of a lifelong dream of Spielberg’s to make a film about our sixteenth President. His reverence and affinity for the man is present throughout his entire body of work. His films throw in little nods towards Lincoln, but it’s also in how Spielberg adopts a reverential tone when depicting American history. It’s the kind of reverence that Lincoln embodied; an optimism that believes in the greater good and potential of the people. When Spielberg learned about the publication of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals”—a nonfiction tome on Lincoln’s unorthodox cabinet—he immediately bought the rights to use as the basis for a biopic. He commissioned his MUNICH (2005) screenwriter, Tony Kushner, to craft the screenplay and recruited his SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993) star Liam Neeson to play Lincoln. When Kushner turned in an insanely long script based off Goodwin’s book, Spielberg knew he would have to apply dramatically more judicious focus on which period of Lincoln’s life to portray. He decided on the last four months of Lincoln’s presidency (and life), wherein he passed the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery and ended the Civil War.
LINCOLN languished briefly in development, and due to the delay, Neeson bowed out of the film by reasoning he was now too old to play the part. Spielberg then turned to Daniel Day Lewis, who had previously won the Oscar in 2007 for his performance as ruthless oil baron Daniel Plainview in PT Anderson’s THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Day Lewis initially passed, but Spielberg’s CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002) star Leonardo DiCaprio allegedly convinced Day Lewis to reconsider. It turned out to be a wise decision, as it netted the already-legendary actor his second Oscar statue when the film was released during the 2013 holiday season. LINCOLN performed well at the box office and garnered strong critical acclaim, with most reviews singling out Day Lewis’ performance and Spielberg’s restraint in crafting what amounts to a parlor drama and foregoing the tropes of the biopic genre. But beyond being just another Oscar winning film in Spielberg’s oeuvre, LINCOLN proved to be something altogether more important: an excellent historical document about an important period of American history, a document that will inevitably be shown in classrooms across the country for decades to come.
LINCOLN is set in Washington DC in January of 1865. The Civil War is in its dying throes, Lincoln has signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and a struggling Confederacy is beginning to show symptoms of surrender and a desire to be reintegrated into the Union. Lincoln sees his re-election as a mandate for bold legislation that would uphold the central tenet of our nation: that all men are created equal. This meant the immediate and total abolition of slavery, put forward in the chambers of Congress as the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln employs his supreme intellect and political cunning to manipulate members of Congress as pawns to get the needed votes from a deeply-divided caucus. As the film unfolds, we see Lincoln not as a saintly caricature, but as a flesh and blood man with fallibility and regrets. LINCOLN is a moving tribute to one of our greatest Presidents, allowing us to really know the man who’s stern visage graces our currency.
Daniel Day Lewis, notorious for the choosiness with which he accepts roles, won his second Oscar because he basically resurrected the late President. He looks exactly like Honest Abe, right down to the facial bone structure and gangly physicality. Lewis goes against typical portrayals of Lincoln as a booming orator, giving him a higher vocal inflection that most historians agree is close to how Lincoln would have really sounded. Day Lewis conveys the weary, quiet righteousness of this hallowed American icon, showing exactly why Lincoln is such an influential figure in our history. He prepared meticulously for the role, going so far as to never break character on or off set. He even sent text messages in character to members of the cast!
Day Lewis is directly supported by several incredible character actors. Sally Field is great as Mary Todd Lincoln, the combative, yet supportive First Lady. Field gives real depth to a figure whom historians have written off as a legitimately crazy person.
David Strathairn plays William Seward, the educated, worldly Secretary of State and Lincoln’s right hand man. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Robert Lincoln, a debonair idealist that wants to fight for the Union despite his father’s wishes. As a stubborn, passionate young man, Gordon-Levitt is able to show us another side of his personality in the same year that also gave us his memorable performances in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES and Rian Johnson’s LOOPER.
Tommy Lee Jones also gives an incredible performance as Thaddeus Stevens, the grumpy congressman who was instrumental in swaying the needed votes for ratification.
LINCOLN also boasts the participation of several world-class character actors that weave in and out as part of a larger narrative. James Spader plays W.N. Bilbo, an eccentric, jester-like lobbyist. Tim Blake Nelson makes his second appearance for Spielberg after 2002’s MINORITY REPORT as another lobbyist, Richard Schell. One of my favorite actors, John Hawkes, plays a third lobbyist named Robert Latham. I had the pleasure of directing Hawkes in a small project a few weeks ago– a career highlight for me personally—so it was quite interesting to watch him under Spielberg’s direction.
Hal Holbrook plays Preston Blair, a doggish, elder statesman who helps to kickstart peace talks with the Confederacy. Jackie Earle Haley plays Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens as a stubborn, yet honorable politician. Michael Mann-mainstay Bruce McGill plays Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s supremely bearded Secretary of War. Jared Harris of MAD MEN fame plays Ulysses S. Grant, the gruff, cigar-chomping Union general that won the war and would eventually become President himself. LINCOLN also has a few cameos featuring younger up-and-comers, such as Dane Dehaan and Lukas Haas as two Union soldiers, and Adam Driver as a telegram operator.
LINCOLN finds Spielberg working once again with cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, harnessing the 2.35:1 35mm film image to create crushed blacks and blooming highlights that take on a cream-colored hue. LINCOLN’s overall color palette is greatly de-saturated, leaning heavily towards the colder blue end of the spectrum. Kaminski creates a low key lighting setup not unlike stage theater to light the dark parlors of a pre-electricity White House, and Spielberg utilizes dollies and cranes to add a Ford-ian level of scale to the story. He also chooses to include a curious nightmare sequence—distinguished by a stylized, billowy, grainy look—that is off-tone with the rest of LINCOLN’s straightforward presentation. The fact that it only happens once in the film is further disconcerting to me—it would have made more sense if it were a recurring motif.
Returning Production Designer Rick Carter won an Oscar for his recreation of 1865-era Washington DC. Granted unfettered access to some of Richmond, Virginia’s oldest government buildings, Carter was able to faithfully recreate the period in full fashion. His best work on the film belongs to his treatment of the White House as a gloomy, haunted mansion that has somewhat fallen into disarray in our nation’s darkest days. What’s most immediately striking about the White House sets is the wallpaper that covers every wall from head to toe. Graphic wallpaper is not something one typically thinks of when imagining the White House, but Carter conducted meticulous research so that he could really fill out a sense of the time with little visual details.
John Williams returns to provide the music, as expected. He creates a regal, sweeping score, with horn and string arrangements giving a reverential vibe not unlike his work on 1998’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. His score is anchored by a moving theme that, while not his most memorable composition, pays fitting tribute to Lincoln’s legacy. Spielberg also incorporates a series of period-accurate ballads and folk songs like “The Union Forever” to further convey a time very much removed yet similar to our own.
Of all of Spielberg’s works to come before it, LINCOLN is most similar to 1997’s AMISTAD in that both are 19th century political dramas concerning the rights of African Americans. They both tie into Spielberg’s larger exploration of people in persecution. Father/son tensions manifest themselves in the form of Lincoln squabbling with his son Robert over the latter wanting to go off and join the Union army, a subplot very similar to Tom Cruise and Justin Chatwin’s dynamic in WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005). Other Spielberg-ian visual conceits (shafts of lights, silhouettes, lens flares, child’s eye level compositions) are all present and accounted for, bringing LINCOLN’s aesthetic right in line with our auteur’s previous work.
When I first heard Spielberg was doing a film about Abraham Lincoln, a sicker part of my personality immediately became curious how he’d show the assassination. After all, you can’t make a film without Lincoln without the assassination at Ford’s Theatre, right? As I watched LINCOLN in theatres, I had a growing pit in my stomach. I knew it was coming, but I didn’t want it to anymore—seeing how reverent a tone Spielberg had struck, suddenly it seemed to me that including his murder would be crass and out of line with the story. So imagine my relief when Spielberg chose to depict the event off-camera, letting a lingering look of his long, gangly walk down a White House hallway to the carriage that will whisk him away to his inevitable death serve as the graceful, dignified exit that the real-life Lincoln deserved. While Spielberg chose to indulge his sentimental tendencies and end the film with Lincoln delivering his second Inaugural speech, it was the long, quiet walk away from us—cutting that iconic figure in his stovepipe hat—that should have been the final shot.
LINCOLN was released to the expected financial performance and critical acclaim that has come to define the wake of a new Spielberg film. It was nominated for all the major Oscars, and was even considered to be the odds-on favorite for Best Picture and what would be Spielberg’s third Directing statue. While Ben Affleck’s ARGO pulled out a surprise win in the end, LINCOLN’s long-term legacy is assured. It is one of Spielberg’s most relevant films, using the past to teach us an important lesson about our present. It will be remembered long after ARGO has had its day in the sun.
As of this writing, LINCOLN is Spielberg’s latest work, which puts a temporary end to the examination of his career for The Director’s Series. Spielberg’s filmography holds many lessons for every aspiring filmmaker, regardless of personal taste or aesthetic. You don’t need family connections or wealth to become the most successful filmmaker in the world, you just need the insatiable desire to tell great stories. In studying Spielberg, I’ve learned that it’s also important to be well-versed in the business side of the art form. A lot of Spielberg’s influence (and affluence) comes not from his directorial efforts, but his business/producing ventures. He’s the world’s highest-profile filmmaker, and his influence will be felt on the medium long after he’s gone.
But he’s not done yet. As he enters his twilight years, Spielberg is just beginning the third act to his career. After inventing the modern blockbuster, only to reinvent himself as an auteur of important social issue works, Spielberg has become the Abraham Lincoln of filmmaking. In other words, he uses his gifts to inspire us to pursue the best possible versions of ourselves. Having risen from the first generation of filmmakers to openly acknowledge their influences and the mastery of their cinematic forebears, Spielberg has gone on to eclipse his idols, and in the process, fundamentally and repeatedly change the art form.
LINCOLN is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Twentieth Century Fox.
Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg
Written by: Tony Kushner
Director of Photography: Janusz Kaminski
Production Designer: Rick Carter
Editor: Michael Kahn
Music: John Williams