Greatness: Steve Recommends Lincoln

Lincoln was great, a great man, a great leader, a great president, and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln does a remarkable job of shining a light on that greatness. It is lincolnremarkable because it doesn’t set out to build on the mythical nature of Lincoln’s greatness, but instead presents a very human Lincoln, and yet in doing so it ends up giving us a portrait of Lincoln that is possibly more impressive than the myth.

Lincoln’s human limitations are on display both professionally and personally. As a politician is not above the use of tactical maneuvers that are ethically ambiguous at best. He accepts the use of what we would today call lobbyists to secure the needed votes of fence-sitting Democrats by offering patronage jobs. He even wonders if he has abused the powers of the presidency by enacting the Emancipation Proclamation. All of this is in service of passing the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery. His unwavering dedication to that noble goal forms the central question of the movie: what actions are acceptable in achieving a desired outcome? Does the end justify the means? (This question is also played out in the character of Congressman Thaddeus Stevens.) Lincoln is shown as a man of humor even in difficult times and as a perpetual storyteller. The storytelling does more than show Lincoln as a folksy guy. The stories work much like Jesus’ parables. Some listeners failed to grasp their meaning, but, for those with ears to hear, the stories pointed to a greater truth. It was the use of that subtle wisdom that painted the portrait of Lincoln as an impressive, even a great, leader. On the personal side, Lincoln was shown as a man wearied by the pressures of leading the country through its bloodiest war and as a man burdened by personal grief. This is played out most powerfully in the scene where he and Mary Todd discuss their fears about their oldest son, Robert, joining the military and the unresolved grief at the death of another son. It was inspiring to see how Lincoln pressed on with the vital task at hand despite theses personal burdens.

Certainly, much credit for the power of this movie goes to Spielberg as director. I’m not always a huge Spielberg fan. I’m among those who feel that he tends to be overly sentimental and that he relies too heavily on certain techniques, such as back-lighting. He does use back-lighting here, but it mostly to good effect, and he directs the film with a steady hand. However, any mention of credit must quickly include Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln. Yes, it is that good, best actor Oscar good. Often Day-Lewis chews up the scenery, but here his performance is all the more masterful in its restraint. His Lincoln is soft-spoken, but you hang on every word. The few scenes where he responds with greater emotion (such as the one with Mary Todd mentioned above) stand out in contrast to the careful, measured responses of Lincoln, but it is that quiet power that makes the performance, and the image of Lincoln that it represents, so impressive. As strong as his performance is, this is not a one-man show. Day-Lewis is joined by a universally strong supporting cast. Sally Field, who by any reckoning should have been considered too old for the part of Mary Todd Lincoln, delivers a stellar performance, also worthy of an Oscar nomination. Finally, credit also goes to Tony Kushner for a strong script. This is a wordy film. If you are looking for a movie with lots of war action , something along the lines of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, don’t look for it here. Little of the Civil War is shown. This movie focuses on rhetoric, political maneuvering, and personal relationships. It is not a thrilling movie, but it is an intriguing one, with a story that more than justifies its two and a half hour length and that makes Lincoln one of the great movies of the year.