Four years ago I chose Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln as the best film of 2012, a decision that I have questioned ever since. I’m not sure why. I’m not sure why I put it at the top of my list, and I am not 100% sure why I’ve questioned it. I thought maybe watching it again for ’A Study in Spielberg’ might reveal an answer. Watching the film again yesterday I tried to figure out what element attracted me to this material in the first place. With one exception, I have nothing really negative to say about the film, I like its structure, I like its intentions, I like its purpose. So what am I questioning?
It goes without saying that the great central attraction of Lincoln is Daniel Day-Lewis. He doesn’t make a movie every year; he hasn’t made a movie since Lincoln and in fact his page on the IMDb lists no film project that is forthcoming. When he appears in a film he is nothing short of mesmerizing and, based on his body of work, he is apparently impossible to typecast. To my knowledge he’s never given a bad performance and, in my opinion, Lincoln is his best work; he disappears inside the skin of the sixteenth President of the United States in a way that makes him seem, not like an American icon, but like an all-too-human man.
Lincoln is no flat portrait of a revered man, but the portrait of a man who is many different things to many people for many different reasons. He is folksy, always ready with a story, which he uses to break tension. He is a healer, whose words are effectual and elegant. We see Lincoln as a shrewd politician who is not afraid to bend the rules. The movie follows the last four months of his life, the time in which he balances a juggling act of monumental proportions. He is faced with ending the war, passing the thirteenth amendment and unconditionally pulling the union back together. This is the most daunting task ever given to an American leader, but Lincoln with all his great strength and intelligence puts himself into the task like a general on the battlefield.
Those around Lincoln think he’s reckless and crazy, but he understands that he must place his country on its feet to be ready for the next generation. To the future of his country, he sees what others do not, that asphyxiating the institution of slavery will not only bring the war to a close but will prepare his country for the next phase in its evolution. He sees slavery as a basic and unnecessary evil that he must stamp out. If he waits too long, it will never happen. If he acts too quickly, he will lose the republic.
He understands suffering. Under the surface Lincoln is a man who is quietly smoldering with grief. He has seen his country through four years of devastating civil war that General Grant describes as “intimate and ugly.” In his chest beats a heart that is heavy for his country but also for the loss in his own family. Some years earlier, he and wife Mary Todd lost a son Willie to typhus. While Mary withers under the stress and strain and guilt of what she could have done to save her son (and further has to put on a fake smile for public affairs), her husband stands as the pillar of strength. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t hurt, but that he admits that he can’t let himself crumble under the weight of his guilt, he has a deeper issue to deal with.
Lincoln is a man in deep despair but that doesn’t alter his capacity for reason. He is a deep thinker whose consideration allows us to understand not only how he thinks about an issue but how long he has been considering it. The best of these takes place at a moment of quiet introspection while he is preparing to send an important cable to General Grant. Lincoln sits in the telegraph office and quietly asks the young operator “Do you think that we choose to be born, or are we fitted to the times we are born to?” He learns that the young officer is an engineering student and begins to consider the issue of racial equality in the terms of Euclid’s axioms and common notions. In just a few beautifully chosen words, Abraham Lincoln pulls the 2000 year old method of mathematical reasoning into the issue of slavery, deeming that “things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.”
This would be nothing without Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance. He could easily have stood in the background and remained an omniscient and obscure figure, ruling on high, but he brings Abraham Lincoln down to a level that allows us to sense the man. This is essential because Lincoln, for all of our reverence, is a man that we in 21st century American don’t really know. Within the structural timeline of American History, his tenure on this earth ended half a generation before voices and images began to be captured by recording devices. His voice is lost to history and that, in effect, cements his legend because not knowing how he sounded or how he moved leaves us to interpret Lincoln any way we want. We idolize him because we cannot humanize his flaws with our senses. Through Day-Lewis’ performance we get a sense of a humble and good man, a crafty and at times devious politician, and a wounded but devoted family man who perhaps worked longer and harder than any other single person in history during the moment of its greatest crisis to keep this country together.
I so I return to my initial question. Writing on the subject, I find that it has only furthered my affection for Lincoln and for the film. So, what makes me uncomfortable about having selected this as the best film of 2012? Perhaps it is my own reaction to Lincoln himself. This is a man that I have so loved and so revered since I learned about his life as a child, as all schoolchildren do, that it is probable to think that this affection may have given me a rose-colored view of the film itself.
Watching it again, I don’t think that’s the case. This is a wonderful film, a great historical microscope of the most important moment of Lincoln’s career. I could watch any moment of it again right now, the only exception being the ending. It ends with Lincoln’s assassination (off-screen) and I don’t think it’s necessary. There is a moment when Lincoln leaves for the theater and we see his back as he walks down the hall and disappears out of sight. I think that might have been the perfect moments to end things; I already know in exhaustive detail about his death. Pull back a little and I think that the movie would have ended on a perfect note. Still, I can’t fault the whole film for just one misstep. This is an important look into one of the most important chapter of American history, a moment when one man used all he had so that this nation would not perish from the Earth.