Film review: Lincoln (Director: Steven Spielberg)
By Sascha Krieger
Abraham Lincoln is undoubtedly America’s greatest icon. The man who abolished slavery, ended – and won, depending on what part of the country you’re in – the Civil War, America’s greatest president of course, he stands for honesty, for following one’s beliefs, a symbol of all that Americans believe make their country great. An icon in the closer sense, too. Hardly any single image symbolizes American democracy and greatness more than the towering yet humble figure seated in the center of Washington’s Lincoln memorial, itself irretrievably associated with democracy and civil rights in the American psyche. Any film depicting Lincoln must deal with the iconography and even hagiography of this greatest of American heroes. Steven Spielberg manages it superbly because he accepts it. He knows that Lincoln is first and foremost a symbol and only secondly a human being that once walked this earth.
And so the first thing we see of him are eyes looking at their hero, idolizing, euphoric, self-confident looks of soldiers on the eve of battle, a battle so brutal that heroism cannot reside here as we have seen in the opening scene. Now he who resides over all of this appears, but more like a ghost, an image, something true because others believe in its existence. The camera moves behind him, seated of course, a still silhouette, a thought, an idea more than a man. Throughout the film, Spielberg and his trusted cinematographer Janusz Kaminski will quote and use the rich Lincoln iconography, will always move back to the icon who has long ceased to be a man only. We hear excerpts from his most memorable speech, the Gettysburgh address, but not from him: a black soldier quotes them and he demands the promises Lincoln had made. when we hear the words of the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery, they are read by a black servant. Spielberg separates the man from the icon, making the latter even stronger in the process.
For the man Lincoln we see is far from a heroic figure, a lanky, slowly, uncertainly walking, shy figure with a warm and knowing smile, a pleasant and quiet man who loves bad jokes and continuously annoys his environment with his love for long rambling stories. Everything is low-key about this Lincoln as Daniel Day-Lewis plays him. An earnest man who refuses to take himself as seriously as everybody else does, who knows his limitations and is aware that he needs others to help him achieve his goals. In Day-Lewis‘ hands, the icon turns human.
Spielberg focuses on the few weeks before the decisive House vote on the Thirteenth Amendment. Spielberg reduces this historic moments to an intense almost theatre-like chamber piece, far from the great bloodshed of the Civil War which, however, is aways present, overpowering in its presumed absence. Spielberg, Kaminski and their cast create an almost stifling atmosphere in their dark and murky interiors in which little shines. For this is a nasty business, this battlefield is void of heroics, it consists of backrooms and offices and parlors, its weapons are persuasion and bribes. The master of this game is named Bilbo and James Spader portrays him as a sleazy gambler with self-confidence and a sense of purpose. An impossible hero but exactly the kind needed.
For this Lincoln is also a very pragmatic politician who does not shy away from using shady methods when he feels he needs to. In order to procure a majority, he offers his opponents jobs or a political future. One of the brightest hours of American history is revealed to be the result of dirty tricks, to wheeling and dealing of the basest kind. Does the outcome justify the means? This Lincoln would say yes and so does in fact Tommy Lee Jones in his astonishing role as radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens. His greatest moment comes when the aggressive speaker, the master of polemics mechanically rattles off words expected of him so as not to alienate those whose support he needs. We only need a look into his stony phase to understand what is sometimes needed to achieve great things. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is thus a great study in democracy, in the workings of politics and proof that greatness and character come at a price.
And Lincoln? The film manages a balancing act. It shows Lincoln the politician, the flawed husband and father, the man who threw a way a chance at instant piece to get the Amendment through, no hero, a projection of others, for good or bad. And at the same time, it keeps the icon alive, the symbol, the Lincoln who is just a name for an idea. The idea of equality, of fairness, of treating humans the way they deserve. No matter how it was achieved his legacy deserves to be celebrated each and every day. As a film, Lincoln is an understatement, low-key, largely restricted to closed rooms, conservatively narrated. And this is precisely why it is so great because it embodies the story told and the man told of. A man who is great because he is so ordinary. Nothing special. A hero of democracy.