I finally saw "Lincoln" a few nights ago. I had heard nothing but praise for Steven Spielberg’s movie about the martyred president, but I have to be in the mood for Spielberg’s tendency towards beautifully crafted pretension when he tackles a Serious Subject. I liked the director much better when he was working with clunky mechanical sharks, vengeful truck drivers, and spaceships that sparkled like Fifth Avenue at Christmastime.
For a man whose very name inspires a moment of respectful silence at all the Starbucks on Sunset Boulevard, Mr. Spielberg has played it safe much more frequently than he blazed any new cinematic trails. For every "Empire of the Sun," there were three films that seemed to have been hatched by eager fingers on calculating machines rather than by anyone making any pretense towards advancing the art of motion pictures.
Spielberg would argue, I’m sure, that the success of the "Indiana Jones" and "Jurassic Park" films gave him the financial clout and credibility to risk $100 million of Warner Bros.’ money on a movie about a robotic child who wants to become a real boy to gain the unqualified love of the woman he regards as his mother. And if that plotline sounds vaguely like the one in "Pinocchio," "A.I." was still the richest and most emotionally satisfying film of 2001. It is, moreover, a historically defensable position: John Ford and John Wayne made "Rio Grande" so that they could make "The Quiet Man" two years later.
I started to approach Spielberg’s pictures with more caution after he drenched Alice Walker’s starkly wrought novel, "The Color Purple," in a sanguine prettiness that was totally out of sync with the book. (I, also, made a silent vow never again to pay money to see Oprah Winfrey given the deluge of self-promotion that I regularly get subjected to for free. I’ve kept it, too.) Spielberg reiterated how bad the Holocaust really was in a story that was only slightly less far-fetched than "Close Encounters," won his inevitable Oscar, and found himself comfortably cloaked in the mantle of Hollywood elder statesman at age 47.
"Lincoln" wasn’t completely exempt from his tendency towards grandiosity. If anyone should lose track of that fact, John Williams was on hand to inject the requisite mournful oboe solos to facilitate reminders that what we are watching is a lot more than just an expensive movie.
Mr. Spielberg also seems to think that sheer length denotes greatness. It worked, more or less, for David Lean, but at least "Lawrence of Arabia" was blessed with an intermission. "Lincoln"’s running time is 150 minutes. That is a long haul for the bladder-challenged among us but, in fairness, only the final few minutes seem extraneous.
There is a wonderful scene of a silhouetted Lincoln walking down the hallway towards the carriage that will take him to Ford’s Theatre, shot from the point of view of his black manservant, that should have served as the end of the film. Instead, Mr. Spielberg, a bit too-cleverly whisks his audience to a performance at another theater entirely, where the president’s son, Tad, is in the audience. It is there that the announcement is made that the president has been shot.
Children have consistently played important - and even pivotal - roles in Spielberg’s movies, from "Close Encounters," through "E.T." and on to 2011’s "The Adventures of Tintin." It isn’t unusual in a Spielberg film to access and measure devastating news by witnessing a child’s reaction to it. This is news, however, that doesn’t need restating because we intuited the terrible event in the expression on the black man’s face as Lincoln walked down that darkened hallway towards his final destiny.
Its director-inflicted faults are banished to near irrelevancy by Tony Kushner’s eloquent and literate script and a pair of monumental performances by Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field (as a teetering, but formidable Mary Todd). "Lincoln" ultimately assumes an honored place beside "All the King’s Men," "The Best Man," and "Advise and Consent" in the sparsely furnished gallery of Hollywood films about the high ideals and low machinations that characterize American politics. It was refreshing to see Republicans on the side of what was right, although the political party depicted here was destined to be as gone with the wind as anything in Margaret Mitchell’s novel.
The movie is largely concerned with Lincoln’s determination to collect enough votes in the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States. Many in Congress thought that the measure was premature and that it would subvert any effort to bring the Civil War to an end by further inflaming southern determination to retain a vile institution that they regarded as essential to both their economy and their way of life. Lincoln remained adamant, resisting pleas from his political allies and harangues from his enemies.
The backwoodsman mystique is ever-present in Mr. Day-Lewis’ incarnation of Abraham Lincoln, a remarkable accomplishment in that it flawlessly humanizes a figure that history has conferred a near-mythic status upon. This Lincoln is not above the frequent use of the word "ain’t" in conversations, tells jokes that involve outhouses, and perennially exists within a cocoon of his own epic sadness and vast loneliness. It is a performance that, in itself, will acquire its own mythic status.
Alden Graves is a Banner columnist.