Yet even after all of these movies, when we see Lincoln's historical visage we imagine a voice sturdy and worn, certainly not booming and bellowing like an overblown orater yet conveying depth and solidity between the folksy self-deprecation. Thus it comes as a bit of a shock to hear Daniel Day-Lewis' thin, reedy delivery, almost too flimsy to command attention yet apparently very accurate to the real Lincoln's tones. The voice is also very reflective of the film itself, packaging a grand figure modestly and in a sense underwhelmingly, so that we're almost sitting forward in our seats, straining to catch a sense of the taciturn magnitude dancing behind the images like the fleeting shadows and pools of light in Janusz Kaminski's photography or the brief moments of warfare and desolation dappled between interior intrigues and extended dialogues.
I liked Lincoln although I was a bit surprised with the type of film it chose to be, unprepared by the hype surrounding Day-Lewis' transformation and the iconic coupling of auteur and subject in the media. Spielberg himself has said he intended the film to be "claustrophobic," not to set a grand backdrop for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment but rather to focus on the nitty-gritty details of votemongering and interest-group negotiations...and more importantly, the domestic turmoil and moral dilemmas of our title character. In this, he succeeds - Lincoln is chamber drama rather than big-screen spectacle, yet audiences seem to have cottoned to it (it's wrapping up the weekend behind the Twilight and Bond juggernauts, but has nonetheless surprised profit pundits with its relative strength; anecdotally, my parents report that in their East Coast small town, all showings are sold out).
That audience aspect is particularly surprising, as very similar films from Spielberg's own Amistad to the almost identically-plotted Amazing Grace have not fared so well with either critics or viewers. I liked both movies myself, but suppose that the big difference here is the iconic nature of Lincoln himself as well as the focalizing presence of Day-Lewis' excellent performance. It's funny what a difference a few elements can make. Lincoln and Amistad are remarkably similar in a lot of ways: both pour a lot of energy into evoking a certain period but put the meat of their drama in dialogue rather than visuals; both tackle the question of slavery primarily as it pertains to white American conscience and consciousness (although Amistad's view - incorporating an African as one of the main protagonists - is actually broader than Lincoln's); both challenge radical idealism with a more hardheaded pragmatic knowhow; both corresponded a large, national moral and legal question with a notion of personal vindication of a stubborn American political outcast (in Amistad's case, for John Quincy Adams; in Lincoln's case, for radical Republican Thaddeus Stephens, wonderfully portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones).
To me, the most interesting comparison is with Amazing Grace, which was released a few years ago to mixed reviews and tepid box office. Grace depicted the long campaign to end British slave-trading, spearheaded in the House of Commons by William Wilberforce, an earnest young radical (although in the scheme of the film, he represents the "liberal" point of view, scorning both the hidebound conservatives and the Jacobin radicalism of another character). There's a shared fascination with political intrigue, the way cynical means can be used for idealistic ends; Grace's plot is primarily distinguished from Lincoln's by the time frame - two decades rather than one month - and the locale, 18th century British Parliament rather than 19th century Congress, the latter distinguished from the former mostly by its bevy of beards. Meanwhile, both Lincoln and Amazing Grace overflow with character actors biting into juicy parts: Amazing Grace has Michael Gambon, Toby Jones, Ciarin Hinds, and Albert Finney as the aging author of the title song; Lincoln outdoes it with David Straithairn, Hal Holbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, and the scene-stealing (when is he anything else?) James Spader, not to mention stars Sally Field, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the aforementioned Jones stepping in for support work.
Yet Amazing Grace stars the fine but forgettable Ioan Gruffudd as a seemingly uncomplicated Wilberforce, and so it lacks that central pin which holds Lincoln together and offers its allure which beckons viewers past its talkiness and limited confines. Ultimately, if Lincoln can refuse to overwhelm us with kinetic storytelling or sprawling spectacle, that's because it can afford to - it doesn't just have plot, it has character: specifically a character at once homey and larger-than-life, kind-hearted yet forcefully decisive, modest yet deeply powerful - in other words, the ideal father figure. Every Spielberg film that I can think of involves fatherhood in some way (except maybe Raiders of the Lost Ark, unless the father figure is God himself), and the permutations are fascinating: father figures can be either absent (E.T., AI), hesitantly adapting to responsibility (Schindler's List, Jaws, Jurassic Park, Hook, The Lost World, Munich, War of the Worlds) or failing to do so (Catch Me If You Can, Close Encounters), big-brother-like role models (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Empire of the Sun), or ambivalent rivals (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Quint in Jaws - if he counts).
Only two Spielberg films focus on great leaders, grappling with their ambivalence before they emerge strong and powerful, morally if not physically (instead of just skin-of-their-teeth surviving, like Chief Brody or Allan Grant). Schindler's List is one and now Lincoln is the other; it's interesting to remember that initially Liam Neeson was to be cast as the president. As the most successful film director on the planet, as well as the head of a Hollywood studio and one of the biggest players in the industry game for thirty years now, Spielberg's status does not really fit his somewhat falsely modest preferences for ordinary Joes as protagonists. Yet only occasionally does he allow himself to portray and tacitly identify with a larger-than-life, charismatic patriarch - and one of the treats of such works is to see an easy admiration shade over into a more revealing identification with strength and power. Which also leads to the works' greatest flaws.
In neither Schindler nor Lincoln is Spielberg comfortable with the helpless, powerless characters whose presence he feels compelled to humor; in Schindler, his attempts to identify with the Jews are often awkward and forced (their banter in the ghettos has a false ring and none of the knowing sureness with which Spielberg approaches, for example, a German party) while in Lincoln, the director doesn't even try to identify with the a powerless even as he edges them into his frame or gives them voice. There are a few token black characters, mostly servants, and I kind of wish Spielberg hadn't included them at all, as their presence usually seems strained and embarrassed - although Day-Lewis compellingly delivers a dialogue with one ex-slave. For the most part, just as in Amazing Grace, Lincoln's triumph is a white triumph, and not just a white triumph, but a triumph for whites in positions of power. This is fine as it goes but can become annoying when Spielberg lays the sentiment on too thick; especially notable when the Congressmen stand up to be counted for complete abolition. The entire film has been spent showing us how many of these votes had to be cynically bought, and yet here the swelling score and triumphant close-ups and cutting convey a sense of moral victory misplaced onto the undeserving.
There is, however, a subsequent scene which is the best in the film and the only one to startle us out of our conventional-history milieu/reverie: Thaddeus Stephens returns home, a black housekeeper welcomes him back and he hands her the historic bill that has just passed the House. Then he removes his wig, and lies down in bed...next to this same woman. The dramatic reveal could risk cheese or even offensiveness - after all, why should we be startled by miscegenation? But it does seem surprising, not only because of the historical context, but because of the studiously maintained social universe we've been enveloped in for over two hours. Here the relative conservatism of the film's approach (in which the stakes seem theoretical, with the violent consequences of war mostly offscreen, and the actual subjects of all the political-back-and-forth rendered mostly moot and blurred in the background) pays off. Only now are we truly confronted with what's been in play all along: not just the stoic, rather abstract symbolism of black faces in the Capitol galley, but the shared dignity of fellow human beings. This realization, plus Jones' weary, beautifully invested gestures and expressions, sell the risky moment and to a certain extent justify the film.
There's a humorous moment about halfway through the movie as the president prepares to hoist a flag. (There are actually a lot of humorous moments, mostly revolving around Lincoln's penchant for long-winded folksy jokes, anecdotes, and stories, many of which completely perplex his listeners - at one hilarious interval, Secretary Seward grumbles, "Yes, I-" and then throws his hands in the air, snapping "Actually I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about." The audience I was with, including yours truly, laughed aloud in affectionate sympathy). At this particular moment, Lincoln pulls a wrinkled text out of his coat and reads a few piquant lines aloud. Then he pauses, shrugs, and says - with a twinkle in his eye as he stuffs the parchment back in his pocket - "That's my speech." We chuckle, but of course his few, evocative words have said quite a bit more than they seemed to. So does Lincoln; while not a masterpiece, there's more going on in it than the reedy, homespun if somewhat ambling tones initially suggest. Lincoln talks - but it's what's between the lines that lingers.
Read my reviews of Amazing Grace, Abraham Lincoln, Schindler's List and Munich.