A movie divided against itself: Lincoln

If Spielberg had devoted the entirety of Lincoln to the legislative wrangling in the House of Representatives over the Thirteenth Amendment, we would still have seen a sixteenth president worth eulogizing and a great movie worth its plaudits. But Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner leaven the verisimilitude of congressional skullduggery with plotting as gross as horsehair sofas and overflowing spittons. If Lincoln has a rickety pace, blame Kushner-Spielberg’s distractions: Tad Lincoln mesmerized by daguerreotypes of slave children, Mary Todd’s (Sally Field) solicitude for her black assistant (Elizabeth Keckley), and the filial drama involving future secretary of war and witness to the James Garfield assassination Robert Todd. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln — a great novel and quite likely the only historical book on the president and era everyone should read — theorizes that Robert reminded Abe of all that was ugliest about his wretched childhood. It’s a tribute to Daniel Day-Lewis that he suggests how these slivers of contempt prick a mewling Joseph Gordon-Levitt just so.

Because Spielberg and Kushner’s Munich was also fraught with the irreconcilability of realism and Expressionism, I accepted with a groan the opening scene in which two black soldiers banter with a backlit, smoke-wreathed Abe about the Gettysburg Address but did wonder why all that incense didn’t make them choke. But both strains cohered in the conception of Representative Thaddeus Stevens, a self-righteous blowhard who happened to be right about emancipation and black equality for the wrong reasons. His face scarred as if by a bowie knife, wearing an absurd wig like it’s part of his war paint, Tommy Lee Jones has more fun onscreen than at any time since 1991’s JFK. Forget the wig: not many actors can say “mephitic” in a speech with the right comic menace. The crucial final scene between Stevens and Lincoln hints how even a victorious commander in chief is no match for a radical faction that wants revenge and is prepared to swat a lame duck president aside; whether the real Lincoln would have succeeded in the face of such rancor is an open question. Which is to say: when Lincoln sticks to politics, it’s quite good. I wish Kushner had written more scenes between Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward, until Dick Cheney possibly the most powerful number-two in American history. David Straithairn has the right lean, soiled look and sureness of command, especially when ordering a pair of fixers (James Spader and John Hawkes) to cajole, bribe, and threaten wobbly representatives.

An American picture with a big budget, this pedigree, and wreathed with so much worthiness often exists for the sake of Academy Award nominations, so I’m grateful Spielberg treats the audiences like adults who might get a kick out of how delicious history can be when you commit yourself to showing what the Beltway class would dismiss as “process.” Moments between party satrap Francis Blair (Hal Holbrook) and Lincoln could have come straight out of Vidal’s novel. So is the Cabinet meeting at which Lincoln explains how his war powers, by their logic and inexorability, give him the authority to keep slaves free. In two scenes Jackie Earle Haley renders the intelligence and passion of Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, once a House colleague of Lincoln’s and about whom Edmund Wilson said in Patriotic Gore: “He had carried his idealism so far that it was possible for him to imagine that the rightness of the course of the Confederacy would eventually become plain to everyone…” Although Kushner can’t connect the dichotomous approach to Mary Todd — she’s a nut and a grieving mom, pick your poison — Field still gives a shrewd performance — a revelation to those of us who know her from Forrest Gump, Mrs Doubtfire, and even Places of the Heart as an icon of wounded maternity after the fiery will in Norma Rae had extinguished.

As for Day-Lewis, he fills the screen without dominating it, which is one way of saying the performance didn’t excite me; like much of his recent work, he often sounds like an Audio Animatronic version of Daniel Day-Lewis, Commander in Chief of the Thespian World. He tells the story of Ethan Allen and the outhouse well. He projects how the weight of thought and fairness can hollow a man. But his most memorable moment comes when saying Kushner’s best line. Concluding a delicate, intimate colloquy between Lincoln and Mary Todd’s black maid (in which Lincoln actually listens to another person, let alone a former slave), he says quietly, “I’ll get used to you,” a line whose gentle, almost courtly ruthlessness honors our greatest writer-president (only Jefferson is his equal in phrasemaking, Grant in demotic clarity). It took a hundred years later to fulfill that tacit promise.

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